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UNIVERSITY 
OF FLORIDA 
LIBRARIES 




COLLEGE LIBRARY 

university Qmm 



'*" 




CLEA 



by Lawrence Durrell 

JUSTINE 

BALTHAZAR 

MOUNTOLIVE 

CLEA 

BITTER LEMONS 

ESPRIT DE CORPS 

STIFF UPPER LIP 



CLEA 

a novel 
by 

LAWRENCE 
DURRELL 



NEW YORK 

E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc 

1960 



Copyright, ©, I960, by Lawrence Durrel) 
All rights reserved. Printed in the U.S.A. 



No part of this book may be reproduced in any 
form without permission in writing from the pub- 
lisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote 
brief passages in connection with a review written 
for inclusion in a magazine or newspaper or 
broadcast. 



First Printing, March 1960 

Second Printing, March 1960 

Third Printing, April 1960 

Fourth Printing, April 1960 

Fifth Printing, June 1960 

Sixth Printing, November 1960 

Seventh Printing, January 1961 



Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 60-5969 



To 
MY FATHER 



Digitized by the Internet Archive 

in 2012 with funding from 

LYF^ASIS Members and Sloan Foundation 



http://archive.org/details/cleanoveOOdurr 



AUTHOR'S NOTE 

This is the fourth volume of a group of novels intended to be judged as a 
single work It is a sequel to Justine, Balthazar, and Mount- 
olive. Together the four novels constitute f< The Alexandria Quartet"; 
a suitable descriptive subtitle would be (( a word continuum". The 
prefatory note to Balthazar has already described my intentions as 
far as the form of the books is concerned. 

Among the workpoints at the end of this volume I have sketched a 
number of possible ways of continuing to deploy these characters and 
situations in further instalments — but this is only to suggest that even 
if the series were extended indefinitely the result would never become a 
roman fleuve (an expansion of the matter in serial form) but would 
remain strictly part of the present word-continuum. If the axis has 
been well and truly laid down in the quartet it should be possible to 
radiate in any direction without losing the strictness and congruity of 
the continuum. But to all intents and purposes the present set of four 
volumes may be judged as a completed whole. 

LD. 



The Primary and most beautiful of Nature s 
qualities is motion, which agitates her at all 
times, hut this motion is simply the perpetual 
consequence of crimes, it is conserved hy means 
of crimes alone. 

(D. A. F. de Sade) 



BOOK I 



The oranges were more plentiful than usual that year. 
They glowed in their arbours of burnished green leaf 
like lanterns, flickering up there among the sunny 
woods. It was as if they were eager to celebrate our 
departure from the little island — for at last the long-awaited 
message from Nessim had come, like a summons back to the 
Underworld. A message which was to draw me back inexorably 
to the one city which for me always hovered between illusion 
and reality, between the substance and the poetic images which 
its very name aroused in me. A memory, I told myself, which 
had been falsified by the desires and intuitions only as yet half- 
realised on paper. Alexandria, the capital of memory! All the 
writing which I had borrowed from the living and the dead, 
until I myself had become a sort of postscript to a letter which 
was never ended, never posted. . . . 

How long had I been away? I could hardly compute, though 
calendar-time gives little enough indication of the aeons which 
separate one self from another, one day from another; and all 
this time I had been living there, truly, in the Alexandria of my 
heart's mind. And page by page, heartbeat by heartbeat, I had 
been surrendering myself to the grotesque organism of which we 
had all once been part, victors and vanquished alike. An ancient 
city changing under the brush-strokes of thoughts which be- 
sieged meaning, clamouring for identity; somewhere there, on 
the black thorny promontories of Africa the aromatic truth of 
the place lived on, the bitter unchewable herb of the past, the 
pith of memory. I had set out once to store, to codify, to 
annotate the past before it was utterly lost — that at least was a 
task I had set myself. I had failed in it (perhaps it was hope- 
less?) — for no sooner had I embalmed one aspect of it in words 

II 



than the intrusion of new knowledge disrupted the frame of 
reference, everything flew asunder, only to reassemble again in 
unforeseen, unpredictable patterns. . . . 

"To re-work reality" I had written somewhere; temeritous, 
presumptuous words indeed — for it is reality which works and 
reworks us on its slow wheel. Yet if I had been enriched by the 
experience of this island interlude, it was perhaps because of 
this total failure to record the inner truth of the city. I had 
now come face to face with the nature of time, that ailment of 
the human psyche. I had been forced to admit defeat on paper. 
Yet curiously enough the act of writing had in itself brought 
me another sort of increase; by the very failure of words, which 
sink one by one into the measureless caverns of the imagination 
and gutter out. An expensive way to begin living, yes; but then 
we artists are driven towards personal lives nourished in these 
strange techniques of self-pursuit. 

But then ... if I had changed, what of my friends — Bal- 
thazar, Nessim, Justine, Clea? What new aspects of them 
would I discern after this time-lapse, when once more I had 
been caught up in the ambience of a new city, a city now 
swallowed by a war? Here was the rub. I could not say. Appre- 
hension trembled within me like a lodestar. It was hard to 
renounce the hard-won territory of my dreams in favour of new 
images, new cities, new dispositions, new loves. I had come to 
hug my own dreams of the place like a monomaniac. . . . Would 
it not, I wondered, be wiser to stay where I was? Perhaps. Yet I 
knew I must go. Indeed this very night I should be gone! The 
thought itself was so hard to grasp that I was forced to whisper 
it aloud to myself. 

We had passed the last ten days since the messenger called in 
a golden hush of anticipation; and the weather had matched it, 
turning up a succession of perfectly blue days, windless seas. 
We stood between the two landscapes, unwilling to relinquish 
the one yet aching to encounter the other. Poised, like gulls 
upon the side of a cliff. And already the dissimilar images 

12 



mixed and baulked in my dreams. This island house, for ex- 
ample, its smoke-silvered olives and almonds where the red- 
footed partridge wandered . . . silent glades where only the 
goat-face of a Pan might emerge. Its simple and lucent perfec- 
tion of form and colour could not mix with the other premoni- 
tions crowding in upon us. (A sky full of falling-stars, emerald 
wash of tides on lonely beaches, crying of gulls on the white 
roads of the south.) This Grecian world was already being in- 
vaded by the odours of the forgotten city — promontories where 
the sweating sea-captains had boozed and eaten until their 
intestines cracked, had drained their bodies, like kegs, of every 
lust, foundering in the embrace of black slaves with spaniels' 
eyes. (The mirrors, the heart-rending sweetness of the voices of 
blinded canaries, the bubble of narguilehs in their rose-water 
bowls, the smell of patchouli and joss.) They were eating into 
one another, these irreconcilable dreams. And I saw my friends 
once again (not as names now), irradiated anew by the know- 
ledge of this departure. They were no longer shadows of my 
own writing but refreshed anew — even the dead. At night I 
walked again those curling streets with Melissa (situated now 
somewhere beyond regrets, for even in my dreams I knew she 
was dead), walking comfortably arm in arm; her narrow legs 
like scissors gave her a swaying walk. The habit of pressing her 
thigh to mine at every step. I could see everything with affec- 
tion now — even the old cotton frock and cheap shoes which she 
wore on holidays. She had not been able to powder out the 
faint blue lovebite on her throat. . . . Then she vanished and I 
awoke with a cry of regret. Dawn was breaking among the 
olives, silvering their still leaves. 

Somewhere along the road I had recovered my peace of mind. 
This handful of blue days before saying farewell — I treasured 
them, luxuriating in their simplicity: fires of olive-wood blazing 
in the old hearth whose painting of Justine would be the last 
item to be packed, jumping and gleaming on the battered table 
and chair, on the blue enamel bowl of early cyclamen. What 

13 



had the city to do with all this — an Aegean spring hanging 
upon a thread between winter and the first white puffs of 
almond blossom? It was a word merely, and meant little, being 
scribbled on the margins of a dream, or being repeated in the 
mind to the colloquial music of time, which is only desire 
expressed in heartbeats. Indeed, though I loved it so much, I 
was powerless to stay; the city which I now knew I hated held 
out something different for me — a new evaluation of the experi- 
ence which had marked me. I must return to it once more in 
order to be able to leave it forever, to shed it. If I have spoken 
of time it is because the writer I was becoming was learning at 
last to inhabit those deserted spaces which time misses — 
beginning to live between the ticks of the clock, so to speak. 
The continuous present, which is the real history of that collec- 
tive anecdote, the human mind; when the past is dead and the 
future represented only by desire and fear, what of that adven- 
tive moment which can't be measured, can't be dismissed? For 
most of us the so-called Present is snatched away like some 
sumptuous repast, conjured up by fairies — before one can touch 
a mouthful. Like the dead Pursewarden I hoped I might soon 
be truthfully able to say: "I do not write for those who have 
never asked themselves this question: 'at what point does real 
life begin?' " 

Idle thoughts passing through the mind as I lay on a flat 
rock above the sea, eating an orange, perfectly circumscribed by 
a solitude which would soon be engulfed by the city, the pon- 
derous azure dream of Alexandria basking like some old reptile 
in the bronze Pharaonic light of the great lake. The master- 
sensualists of history abandoning their bodies to mirrors, to 
poems, to the grazing flocks of boys and women, to the needle 
in the vein, to the opium-pipe, to the death-in-life of kisses 
without appetite. Walking those streets again in my imagina- 
tion I knew once more that they spanned, not merely human 
history, but the whole biological scale of the heart's affections 
— from the painted ecstasies of Cleopatra (strange that the vine 



should be discovered here, near Taposiris) to the bigotry of 
Hypatia (withered vine-leaves, martyr's kisses). And stranger 
visitors: Rimbaud, student of the Abrupt Path, walked here 
with a belt full of gold coins. And all those other swarthy 
dream-interpreters and politicians and eunuchs were like a 
flock of birds of brilliant plumage. Between pity, desire and 
dread, I saw the city once more spread out before me, in- 
habited by the faces of my friends and subjects. I knew that I 
must re-experience it once more and this time forever. 

Yet it was to be a strange departure, full of small unforeseen 
elements — I mean the messenger being a hunchback in a silver 
suit, a flower in his lapel, a perfumed handkerchief in his 
sleeve! And the sudden springing to life of the little village 
which had for so long tactfully ignored our very existence, save 
for an occasional gift of fish or wine or coloured eggs which 
Athena brought us, folded in her red shawl. She, too, could 
hardly bear to see us go; her stern old wrinkled mask crumpled 
into tears over each item of our slender baggage. But "They 
will not let you leave without a hospitality" she repeated 
stubbornly. "The village will not let you go like that." We 
were to be offered a farewell banquet! 

As for the child I had conducted the whole rehearsal of this 
journey (of her whole life, in truth) in images from a fairy 
story. Many repetitions had not staled it. She would sit staring 
up at the painting and listening attentively. She was more than 
prepared for it all, indeed almost ravenous to take up her own 
place in the gallery of images I had painted for her. She had 
soaked up all the confused colours of this fanciful world to 
which she had once belonged by right and which she would now 
recover — a world peopled by those presences — the father, a dark 
pirate-prince, the stepmother a swarthy imperious queen. . . . 

"She is like the playing-card?" 

"Yes. The Queen of Spades." 

"And her name is Justine." 

"Her name is Justine." 

15 



"In the picture she is smoking. Will she love me more than 
my father or less?" 

"She will love you both." 

There had been no other way to explain it to her, except in 
terms of myth or allegory — the poetry of infant uncertainty. I 
had made her word-perfect in this parable of an Egypt which 
was to throw up for her (enlarged to the size of gods or magi) 
the portraits of her family, of her ancestors. But then is not life 
itself a fairy-tale which we lose the power of apprehending as 
we grow? No matter. She was already drunk upon the image of 
her father. 

"Yes, I understand everything/' With a nod and a sigh she 
would store up these painted images in the treasure-box of her 
mind. Of Melissa, her dead mother, she spoke less often, and 
when she did I answered her in the same fashion from the story- 
book; but she had already sunk, pale star, below the horizon 
into the stillness of death, leaving the foreground to those 
others — the playing-card characters of the living. 

The child had thrown a tangerine into the water and now 
leaned to watch it roll softly down to the sandy floor of the 
grotto. It lay there, flickering like a small flame, nudged by the 
swell and fall of the currents. 

"Now watch me fetch it up." 

"Not in this icy sea, you'll die of cold." 

"It isn't cold to-day. Watch." 

By now she could swim like a young otter. It was easy, sitting 
here on the flat rock above the water, to recognise in her the 
dauntless eyes of Melissa, slanted a little at the edges; and 
sometimes, intermittently, like a forgotten grain of sleep in the 
corners, the dark supposing look (pleading, uncertain) of her 
father Nessim. I remembered Clea's voice saying once, in an- 
other world, long ago: "Mark, if a girl does not like dancing 
and swimming she will never be able to make love." I smiled 
and wondered if the words were true as I watched the little 
creature turn over smoothly in the water and flow gracefully 

16 



downwards to the target with the craft of a seal, toes pressed 
back against the sky. The glimmer of the little white purse 
between her legs. She retrieved the tangerine beautifully and 
spiralled to the surface with it gripped in her teeth. 

"Now run and dry quickly.' ' 

"It isn't cold." 

"Do as you are told. Be off. Hurry." 

"And the man with the hump?" 

"He has gone." 

Mnemjian's unexpected appearance on the island had both 
started and thrilled her — for it was he who brought us Nessim's 
message. It was strange to see him walking along the shingle 
beach with an air of grotesque perturbation, as if balancing on 
corkscrews. I think he wished to show us that for years he had 
not walked on anything but the finest pavements. He was liter- 
ally unused to terra firma. He radiated a precarious and overbred 
finesse. He was clad in a dazzling silver suit, spats, a pearl tie- 
pin, and his fingers were heavily ringed. Only the smile, the 
infant smile was unchanged, and the oiled spitcurl was still 
aimed at the frontal sinus. 

"I have married Halil's widow. I am the richest barber in all 
Egypt to-day, my dear friend." 

He blurted this out all in one breath, leaning on a silver- 
knobbed walking-stick to which he was clearly as unaccus- 
tomed. His violet eye roved somewhat disdainfully round our 
somewhat primitive cottage, and he refused a chair, doubtless 
because he did not wish to crease those formidable trousers. 
"You have a hard style of life here, eh? Not much luxe, Darley." 
Then he sighed and added, "But now you will be coming to us 
again." He made a vague gesture with the stick intended to 
symbolise the hospitality we should once more enjoy from the 
city. "Myself I cannot stay. I am on my way back. I did this 
purely as a favour to Hosnani." He spoke of Nessim with a sort 
of pearly grandeur, as if he were now his equal socially; then he 
caught sight of my smile and had the grace to giggle once before 

17 



becoming serious again. "There is no time, anyway" he said, 
dusting his sleeves. 

This had the merit of being true, for the Smyrna boats stays 
only long enough to unload mail and occasional merchandise — a 
few cases of macaroni, some copper sulphate, a pump. The 
wants of the islanders are few. Together we walked back to- 
wards the village, across the olive-groves, talking as we went. 
Mnemjian still trudged with that slow turtle- walk. But I was 
glad, for it enabled me to ask him a few questions about the 
city, and from his answers to gain some inkling of what I was to 
find there in the matter of changed dispositions, unknown factors. 

"There are many changes since this war. Dr. Balthazar has 
been very ill. You know about the Hosnani intrigue in Pales- 
tine? The collapse? The Egyptians are trying to sequestrate. 
They have taken much away. Yes, they are poor now, and still 
in trouble. She is still under house-detention at Karm Abu Girg. 
Nobody has seen her for an age. He works by special permission 
as an ambulance driver in the docks, twice a week. Very dan- 
gerous. And there was a bad air-raid; he lost one eye and a 
finger." 

"Nessim?" I was startled. The little man nodded self-impor- 
tantly. This new, this unforeseen image of my friend struck me 
like a bullet. "Good God" I said, and the barber nodded as if to 
approve the appropriateness of the oath. "It was bad" he said. 
"It is the war, Darley." Then suddenly a happier thought came 
into his mind and he smiled the infant smile once more which 
reflected only the iron material values of the Levant. Taking my 
arm he continued: "But the war is also good business. My shops 
are cutting the armies' hair day and night. Three saloons, twelve 
assistants! You will see, it is superb. And Pombal says, as a 
joke, 'Now you are shaving the dead while they are still alive/ ' 
He doubled up with soundless refined laughter. 

"Is Pombal back there?" 

"Of course. He is a high man of the Free French now. He 
has conferences with Sir Mountolive. He is also still there. 

18 



Many have remained from your time, Darley, you will see." 

Mnemjian seemed delighted to have been able to astonish me 
so easily. Then he said something which made my mind do a 
double somersault. I stood still and asked him to repeat it, 
thinking that I had misheard him. "I have just visited Capo- 
distria." I stared at him with utter incredulity. Capodistria! 
"But he iieil" I exclaimed in surprise. 

The barber leaned far back, as if on a rocking-horse, and tit- 
tered profusely. It was a very good joke this time and lasted him 
a full minute. Then at last, still sighing luxuriously at the 
memory of it, he slowly took from his breast-pocket a postcard 
such as one buys upon any Mediterranean seafront and held it 
out to me, saying: "Then who is this?" 

It was a murky enough photograph with the heavy developing- 
marks which are a feature of hasty street-photography. It de- 
picted two figures walking along a seafront. One was Mnemjian. 
The other ... I stared at it in growing recognition. . . . 

Capodistria was clad in tubular trousers of an Edwardian 
style and very pointed black shoes. With this he wore a long 
academician's topcoat with a fur collar and cuffs. Finally, and 
quite fantastically, he was sporting a chapeau melon which made 
him look rather like a tall rat in some animal cartoon. He had 
grown a thin Rilkean moustache which drooped a little at the 
corner of his mouth. A long cigarette-holder was between his 
teeth. It was unmistakably Capodistria. "What on earth ..." I 
began, but the smiling Mnemjian shut one eye and laid a finger 
across his lips. "Always" he said "there are mysteries"; and in 
the act of guarding them he swelled up toad-like, staring into 
my eyes with a mischievous content. He would perhaps have 
deigned to explain but at that minute a ship's siren rang out 
from the direction of the village. He was flustered. "Quickly"; 
he began his trudging walk. "I mustn't forget to give you the 
letter from Hosnani." It was carried doubled in his breast 
pocket and he fished it out at last. "And now goodbye" he said. 
"All is arranged. We will meet again." 

l 9 



I shook his hand and stood looking after him for a moment, 
surprised and undecided. Then I turned back to the edge of the 
olive grove and sat down on a rock to read the letter from Nes- 
sim. It was brief and contained the details of the travel arrange- 
ments he had made for us. A little craft would be coming to 
take us off the island. He gave approximate times and instruc- 
tions as to where we should wait for it. All this was clearly set 
out. Then, as a postscript Nessim added in his tall hand: "It 
will be good to meet again, without reserves. I gather that Bal- 
thazar has recounted all our misadventures. You won't exact an 
unduly heavy repentance from people who care for you so much? 
I hope not. Let the past remain a closed book for us all." 

That was how it fell out. 

For those last few days the island regaled us nobly with the 
best of its weather and those austere Cycladean simplicities 
which were like a fond embrace — for which I knew I should be 
longing when once more the miasma of Egypt had closed over 
my head. 

On the evening of departure the whole village turned out to 
give us the promised farewell dinner of lamb on the spit and 
gold retina wine. They spread the tables and chairs down the 
whole length of the small main street and each family brought 
its own offerings to the feast. Even those two proud dignitaries 
were there — mayor and priest — each seated at one end of the 
long table. It was cold to sit in the lamplight thus, pretending 
that it was really a summer evening, but even the moon col- 
laborated, rising blindly out of the sea to shine upon the white 
tablecloths, polish the glasses of wine. The old burnished faces, 
warmed by drink, glowed like copperware. Ancient smiles, 
archaic forms of address, traditional pleasantries, courtesies of 
the old world which was already fading, receding from us. The 
old sea-captains of the sponge-fleets sucking their bounty of 
wine from blue enamel cans, their warm embraces smelt like 
wrinkled crab-apples, their great moustaches tanned by tobacco 
curled towards their ears. 

20 



At first I had been touched, thinking all this ceremony was 
for me; I was not the less so to find that it was for my country. 
To be English when Greece had fallen was to be a target for the 
affection and gratitude of every Greek, and the humble peasants 
of this hamlet felt it no less keenly than Greeks everywhere. 
The shower of toasts and pledges echoed on the night, and all 
the speeches flew like kites, in the high style of Greek, orotund 
and sonorous. They seemed to have the cadences of immortal 
poetry — the poetry of a desperate hour; but of course they were 
only words, the wretched windy words which war so easily 
breeds and which the rhetoricians of peace would soon wear out 
of use. 

But tonight the war lit them up like tapers, the old men, 
giving them a burning grandeur. Only the young men were not 
there to silence and shame them with their hangdog looks — for 
they had gone to Albania to die among the snows. The women 
spoke shrilly, in voices made coarsely thrilling with unshed 
tears, and among the bursts of laughter and song fell their 
sudden silences — like so many open graves. 

It had come so softly towards us over the waters, this war; 
gradually, as clouds which quietly fill in a horizon from end to 
end. But as yet it had not broken. Only the rumour of it gripped 
the heart with conflicting hopes and fears. At first it had 
seemed to portend the end of the so-called civilised world, but 
this hope soon proved vain. No, it was to be as always simply 
the end of kindness and safety and moderate ways; the end of 
the artist's hopes, of nonchalance, of joy. Apart from this 
everything else about the human condition would be con- 
firmed and emphasised; perhaps even a certain truthfulness had 
already begun to emerge from behind appearances, for death 
heightens every tension and permits us fewer of the half-truths 
by which we normally live. 

This was all we had known of it, to date, this unknown 
dragon whose claws had already struck elsewhere. All? Yes, to 
be sure, once or twice the upper sky had swollen with the slur 

21 



of invisible bombers, but their sounds could not drown the 
buzzing, nearer at hand, of the island bees: for each household 
owned a few whitewashed hives. What else? Once (this seemed 
more real) a submarine poked up a periscope in the bay and 
surveyed the coastline for minutes on end. Did it see us bathing 
on the point? We waved. But a periscope has no arms with 
which to wave back. Perhaps on the beaches to the north it had 
discovered something else more rare — an old bull seal dozing in 
the sun like a Moslem on his prayer-mat. But this again could 
have had little to do with war. 

Yet the whole business became a little more real when the 
little caique which Nessim had sent fussed into the dusk-filled 
harbour that night, manned by three sullen-looking sailors 
armed with automatics. They were not Greek, though they 
spoke the tongue with waspish authority. They had tales to tell 
of shattered armies and death by frostbite, but in a sense it was 
already too late, for the wine had fuddled the wits of the old 
men. Their stories palled rapidly. Yet they impressed me, these 
three leather-faced specimens from an unknown civilisation 
called "war". They sat uneasily in such good fellowship. The 
flesh was stretched tight over their unshaven cheek-bones as if 
from fatigue. They smoked gluttonously, gushing the blue 
smoke from mouth and nostrils like voluptuaries. When they 
yawned they seemed to fetch their yawns up from the very 
scrotum. We confided ourselves to their care with misgiving for 
they were the first unfriendly faces we had seen for a long time. 

At midnight we slipped out slantwise from the bay upon a 
high moonlight — the further darkness made more soft, more 
confiding, by the warm incoherent goodbyes which poured out 
across the white beaches towards us. How beautiful are the 
Greek words of greeting and farewell! 

We shuttled for a while along the ink-shadowed line of cliffs 
where the engine's heartbeats were puckered up and thrown 
back at us in volleys. And so at last outwards upon the main 
deep, feeling the soft swelling unction of the water's rhythms 

22 



begin to breast us up, cradle and release us, as if in play. The 
night was superlatively warm and fine. A dolphin broke once, 
twice at the bow. A course was set. 

Exultation mixed with a profound sadness now possessed us; 
fatigue and happiness in one. I could taste the good salt upon 
my lips. We drank some warm sage-tea without talking. The 
child was struck speechless by the beauties of this journey — the 
quivering phosphorescence of our wake, combed out behind us 
like a comet's hair, flowing and reviving. Above us, too, flowed 
the plumed branches of heaven, stars scattered as thick as 
almond-blossom on the enigmatic sky. So at last, happy with 
these auguries and lulled by pulses of the water and the even 
vibrations of the engine, she fell asleep with a smile upon parted 
lips, with the olive-wood doll pressed against her cheek. 

How could I help but think of the past towards which we 
were returning across the dense thickets of time, across the 
familiar pathways of the Greek sea? The night slid past me, an 
unrolling ribbon of darkness. The warm sea- wind brushed my 
cheek — soft as the brush of a fox. Between sleep and waking I 
lay, feeling the tug of memory's heavy plumb-line: tug of the 
leaf-veined city which my memory had peopled with masks, 
malign and beautiful at once. I should see Alexandria again, I 
knew, in the elusive temporal fashion of a ghost — for once you 
become aware of the operation of a time which is not calendar- 
time you become in some sort a ghost. In this other domain I 
could hear the echoes of words uttered long since in the past by 
other voices. Balthazar saying: "This world represents the 
promise of a unique happiness which we are not well-enough 
equipped to grasp." The grim mandate which the city exer- 
cised over its familiars, crippling sentiment, steeping every- 
thing in the vats of its own exhausted passions. Kisses made 
more passionate by remorse. Gestures made in the amber light 
of shuttered rooms. The flocks of white doves flying upwards 
among the minarets. These pictures seemed to me to represent 
the city as I would see it again. But I was wrong — for each new 

23 



approach is different. Each time we deceive ourselves that it 
will be the same. The Alexandria I now saw, the first vision of 
it from the sea, was something I could not have imagined. 

It was still dark when we lay up outside the invisible harbour 
with its remembered outworks of forts and anti-submarine nets. 
I tried to paint the outlines on the darkness with my mind. 
The boom was raised only at dawn each day. An all-obliterating 
darkness reigned. Somewhere ahead of us lay . the invisible 
coast of Africa, with its "kiss of thorns" as the Arabs say. It 
was intolerable to be so aware of them, the towers and minarets 
of the city, and yet to be unable to will them to appear. I could 
not see my own fingers before my face. The sea had become a 
vast empty ante-room, a hollow bubble of blackness. 

Then suddenly there passed a sudden breath, a whiff like a 
wind passing across a bed of embers, and the nearer distance 
glowed pink as a sea-shell, deepening gradually into the rose- 
richness of a flower. A faint and terrible moaning came out 
across the water towards us, pulsing like the wing-beats of some 
fearful prehistoric bird — sirens which howled as the damned 
must howl in limbo. One's nerves were shaken like the 
branches of a tree. And as if in response to this sound lights 
began to prick out everywhere, sporadically at first, then in 
ribbons, bands, squares of crystal. The harbour suddenly out- 
lined itself with complete clarity upon the dark panels of 
heaven, while long white fingers of powder-white light began to 
stalk about the sky in ungainly fashion, as if they were the legs 
of some awkward insect struggling to gain a purchase on the 
slippery black. A dense stream of coloured rockets now began to 
mount from the haze among the battleships, emptying on the 
sky their brilliant clusters of stars and diamonds and smashed 
pearl snuff-boxes with a marvellous prodigality. The air shook 
in strokes. Clouds of pink and yellow dust arose with the 
maroons to shine upon the greasy buttocks of the barrage bal- 
loons which were flying everywhere. The very sea seemed to 
tremble. I had had no idea that we were so near, or that the city 

24 



could be so beautiful in the mere saturnalia of a war. It had 
begun to swell up, to expand like some mystical rose of the 
darkness, and the bombardment kept it company, overflowing 
the mind. To our surprise we found ourselves shouting at each 
other. We were staring at the burning embers of Augustine's 
Carthage, I thought to myself, we were observing the fall of 
city man. 

It was as beautiful as it was stupefying. In the top left-hand 
corner of the tableau the searchlights had begun to congregate, 
quivering and sliding in their ungainly fashion, like daddy- 
long-legs. They intersected and collided feverishly, and it was 
clear that some signal had reached them which told of the 
struggles of some trapped insect on the outer cobweb of dark- 
ness. Again and again they crossed, probed, merged, divided. 
Then at last we saw what they were bracketing: six tiny silver 
moths moving down the skylanes with what seemed unbear- 
able slowness. The sky had gone mad around them yet they still 
moved with this fatal languor; and languidly too curled the 
curving strings of hot diamonds which spouted up from the 
ships, or the rank lacklustre sniffs of cloudy shrapnel which 
marked their progress. 

And deafening as was the roaring which now filled our ears it 
was possible to isolate many of the separate sounds which 
orchestrated the bombardment. The crackle of shards which 
fell back like a hailstorm upon the corrugated roofs of the 
waterside caf£s: the scratchy mechanical voices of ships' sig- 
nallers repeating, in the voices of ventriloquists' dummies, 
semi-intelligible phrases which sounded like "Three o'clock 
red, Three o'clock red". Strangely too, there was music some- 
where at the heart of all the hubbub, jagged quartertones which 
stabbed; then, too, the foundering roar of buildings falling. 
Patches of light which disappeared and left an aperture of 
darkness at which a dirty yellow flame might come and lap like 
a thirsty animal. Nearer at hand (the water smacked the echo 
out) we could hear the rich harvest of spent cannon-shells pour- 

25 



ing upon the decks from the Chicago Pianos: an almost con- 
tinuous splashing of golden metal tumbling from the breeches 
of the skypointed guns. 

So it went on, feasting the eye yet making the vertebrae 
quail before the whirlwind of meaningless power it disclosed. 
I had not realised the impersonality of war before. There was 
no room for human beings or thought of them under this vast 
umbrella of coloured death. Each drawn breath had become 
only a temporary refuge. 

Then, almost as suddenly as it had started, the spectacle died 
away. The harbour vanished with theatrical suddenness, the 
string of precious stones was turned off, the sky emptied, the 
silence drenched us, only to be broken once more by that 
famished crying of the sirens which drilled at the nerves. And 
then, nothing — a nothingness weighing tons of darkness out of 
which grew the smaller and more familiar sounds of water lick- 
ing at the gunwales, A faint shore-wind crept out to invest us 
with the alluvial smells of an invisible estuary. Was it only in 
my imagination that I heard from far away the sounds of wild- 
fowl on the lake? 

We waited thus for a long time in great indecision; but 
meanwhile from the east the dawn had begun to overtake the 
sky, the city and desert. Human voices, weighted like lead, 
came softly out, stirring curiosity and compassion. Children's 
voices — and in the west a sputum-coloured meniscus on the 
horizon. We yawned, it was cold. Shivering, we turned to one 
another, feeling suddenly orphaned in this benighted world 
between light and darkness. 

But gradually it grew up from the eastern marches, this fami- 
liar dawn, the first overflow of citron and rose which would set 
the dead waters of Mareotis a-glitter; and fine as a hair, yet so 
indistinct that one had to stop breathing to verify it, I heard 
(or thought I heard) the first call to prayer from some as yet 
invisible minaret. 

Were there, then, still gods left to invoke? And even as the 

26 



; 



question entered my mind I saw, shooting from the harbour- 
mouth, the three small fishing-boats — sails of rust, liver and 
blue plum. They heeled upon a freshet and stooped across our 
bows like hawks. We could hear the rataplan of water lapping 
their prows. The small figures, balanced like riders, hailed us in 
Arabic to tell us that the boom was up, that we might enter 
harbour. 

This we now did with circumspection, covered by the appar- 
ently deserted batteries. Our little craft trotted down the main 
channel between the long lines of ships like a vaporetto on the 
Grand Canal. I gazed around me. It was all the same, yet at the 
same time unbelievably different. Yes, the main theatre (of 
the heart's affections, of memory, of love?) was the same; yet the 
differences of detail, of d£cor stuck out obstinately. The liners 
now grotesquely dazzle-painted in cubist smears of white, 
khaki and North-Sea greys. Self-conscious guns, nesting awk- 
wardly as cranes in incongruous nests of tarpaulin and webbing. 
The greasy balloons hanging in the sky as if from gibbets. I 
compared them to the ancient clouds of silver pigeon which had 
already begun to climb in wisps and puffs among the palms, 
diving upwards into the white light to meet the sun. A troub- 
ling counterpoint of the known and the unknown. The boats, 
for example, drawn up along the slip at the Yacht Club, with 
the remembered dew thick as sweat upon their masts and cord- 
age. Flags and coloured awnings alike hanging stiffly, as if 
starched. (How many times had we not put out from there, at 
this same hour, in Clea's small boat, loaded with bread and 
oranges and wicker-clothed wine?) How many old sailing-days 
spent upon this crumbling coast, landmarks of affection now 
forgotten? I was amazed to see with what affectionate emotion 
one's eye could travel along a line of inanimate objects tied to a 
mossy wharf, regaling itself with memories which it was not 
conscious of having stored. Even the French warships (though 
now disgraced, their breech-blocks confiscated, their crews in 
nominal internment aboard) were exactly where I had last seen 

27 



them in that vanished life, lying belly-down upon the dawn 
murk like malevolent tomb-stones: and still, as always, backed 
by the paper-thin mirages of the city, whose fig-shaped 
minarets changed colour with every lift of the sun. 

Slowly we passed down the long green aisle among the tall 
ships, as if taking part in some ceremonial review. The sur- 
prises among so much that was familiar, were few but choice: 
an ironclad lying dumbly on its side, a corvette whose upper 
works had been smeared and flattened by a direct hit — gun- 
barrels split like carrots, mountings twisted upon themselves in 
a contortion of scorched agony. Such a large package of grey 
steel to be squashed at a single blow, like a paper bag. Human 
remains were being hosed along the scuppers by small figures 
with a tremendous patience and quite impassively. This was 
surprising as it might be for someone walking in a beautiful 
cemetery to come upon a newly dug grave. ("It is beautiful" 
said the child.) And indeed it was so — the great forests of 
masts and spires which rocked and inclined to the slight swell 
set up by water- traffic, the klaxons mewing softly, the reflec- 
tions dissolving and reforming. There was even some dog- 
eared jazz flowing out upon the water as if from a waste-pip • 
somewhere. To her it must have seemed appropriate music for 
a triumphal entry into the city of childhood. "Jamais de la vie" 
I caught myself humming softly in my own mind, amazed how 
ancient the tune sounded, how dated, how preposterously 
without concern for myself! She was looking into the sky for 
her father, the image which would form like a benevolent 
cloud above us and envelop her. 

Only at the far end of the great dock were there evidences of 
the new world to which we were coming: long lines of trucks 
and ambulances, barriers, and bayonets, manned by the blue 
and khaki races of men like gnomes. And here a slow, but pur- 
poseful and continuous activity reigned. Small troglodytic 
figures emerged from iron cages and caverns along the wharves, 
busy upon errands of differing sorts. Here too there were ships 

28 



split apart in geometrical sections which exposed their steam- 
ing intestines, ships laid open in Caesarian section: and into 
these wounds crawled an endless ant-like stri ng of soldiers and 
blue-jackets humping canisters, bales, sides of oxen on blood- 
stained shoulders. Oven doors opened to expose to the firelight 
white-capped men feverishly dragging at oven-trays of bread. It 
was somehow unbelievably slow, all this activity, yet immense 
in compass. It belonged to the instinct of a race rather than 
to its appetites. And while silence here was only of comparative 
value small sounds became concrete and imperative — sentries 
stamping iron-shod boots upon the cobbles, the yowl of a tug, 
or the buzz of a liner's siren like the sound of some giant blue- 
bottle caught in a web. All this was part of the newly acquired 
city to which I was -henceforth to belong. 

We drew nearer and nearer, scouting for a berth among the 
small craft in the basin; the houses began to go up tall. It was a 
moment of exquisite delicacy, too, and my heart was in my 
mouth (as the saying goes) for I had already caught sight of the 
figure which I knew would be there to meet us — away across the 
wharves there. It was leaning against an ambulance, smoking. 
Something in its attitude struck a chord and I knew it was 
Nessim, though I dared not as yet be sure. It was only when the 
ropes went out and we berthed that I saw, with beating heart 
(recognising him dimly through his disguise as I had with 
Capodistria), that it was indeed my friend. Nessim! 

He wore an unfamiliar black patch over one eye. He was 
dressed in a blue service greatcoat with clumsy padded shoulders 
and very long in the knee. A peaked cap pulled well down over 
his eyes. He seemed much taller and slimmer than I remem- 
bered — perhaps it was this uniform which was half chauffeur's 
livery, half airman's rig. I think he must have felt the force of 
my recognition pressing upon him for he suddenly stood up- 
right, and after peering briefly about him, spotted us. He threw 
the cigarette away and walked along the quay with his swift and 
graceful walk, smiling nervously. I waved but he did not 

29 



respond, though he half nodded as he moved towards us. 
"Look" I said, not without apprehension. "Here he comes at 
last, your father." She watched with wide and frozen eyes fol- 
lowing the tall figure until it stood smiling at us, not six feet 
away. Sailors were busy with ropes. A gang plank went down 
with a bang. I could not decide whether that ominous black 
patch over his eye added to or subtracted from, the old dis- 
tinction. He took off his cap and still smiling, shyly and some- 
what ruefully, stroked his hair into place before putting it on 
again. "Nessim" I called, and he nodded, though he did not 
respond. A silence seemed to fall upon my mind as the child 
stepped out upon the plank. She walked with an air of bemused 
rapture, spellbound by the image rather than the reality. (Is 
poetry, then, more real than observed truth?) And putting out 
her arms like a sleepwalker she walked chuckling into his em- 
brace. I came hard on her heels, and as he still laughed and 
hugged her Nessim handed me the hand with the missing finger. 
It had become a claw, digging into mine. He uttered a short 
dry sob disguised as a cough. That was all. And now the child 
crawled up like a sloth into a tree-trunk and wound her legs 
about his hips. I did not quite know what to say, gazing into 
that one all-comprehending dark eye. His hair was quite white 
at the temples. You cannot squeeze a hand with a missing 
finger as hard as you would like. 

"And so we meet again." 

He backed away briskly and sat down upon a bollard, groping 
for his cigarette case to offer me the unfamiliar delicacy of a 
French cigarette. We were both dumb. The matches were 
damp and only struck with difficulty. "Clea was to have come" 
he said at last, "but she turned tail at the last moment. She has 
gone to Cairo. Justine is out at Karm!" Then ducking his head 
he said under his breath "You know about it eh?" I nodded and 
he looked relieved. (< So much the less to explain. I came off 
duty half an hour ago and waited for you to take you out. But 
perhaps. ..." 

30 



But at this moment a flock of soldiers closed on us, verifying 
our identities and checking on our destinations. Nessim was 
busy with the child. I unpacked my papers for the soldiers. 
They studied them gravely, with a certain detached sympathy 
even, and hunted for my name upon a long sheet of paper before 
informing me that I should have to report to the Consulate, for 
I was a "refugee national". I returned to Nessim with the 
clearance slips and told him of this. "As a matter of fact it does 
not fall badly. I had to go there anyway to fetch a suitcase I left 
with all my respectable suits in it . . . how long ago, I wonder?" 

"A lifetime" he smiled. 

"How shall we arrange it?" 

We sat side by side smoking and reflecting. It was strange 
and moving to hear around us all the accents of the English 
shires. A kindly corporal came over with a tray full of tin mugs, 
steaming with that singular brew, Army tea, and decorated with 
slabs of white bread smeared with margarine. In the middle dis- 
tance a stretcher-party walked apathetically offstage with a 
sagging load from a bombed building. We ate hungrily and be- 
came suddenly aware of our swimming knees. At last I said: 
"Why don't you go on and take her with you? I can get a tram 
at the dock-gate and visit the Consul. Have a shave. Some 
lunch. Come out this evening to Karm if you will send a horse 
to the ford." 

"Very well" he said, with a certain relief, and hugging the 
child suggested this plan to her, whispering in her ear. She 
offered no objection, indeed seemed eager to accompany him — 
for which I felt thankful. And so we walked, with a feeling of 
unreality, across the slimy cobbles to where the little ambulance 
was parked, and Nessim climbed into the driver's seat with the 
child. She smiled and clapped her hands, and I waved them 
away, delighted that the transition was working so smoothly. 
Nevertheless it was strange to find myself thus, alone with the 
city, like a castaway on a familiar reef. 'Familiar' — yes! For 
once one had left the semi-circle of the harbour nothing had 

3* 



changed whatsoever. The little tin tram groaned and wriggled 
along its rusty rails, curving down those familiar streets which 
spread on either side of me images which were absolute in their 
fidelity to my memories. The barbers* shops with their fly-nets 
drawn across the door, tingling with coloured beads: the caf£s 
with their idlers squatting at the tin tables (by El Bab, still the 
crumbling wall and the very table where we had sat motionless, 
weighed down by the blue dusk). Just as he let in the clutch 
Nessim had peered at me sharply and said: "Darley, you have 
changed very much", though whether in reproof or commenda- 
tion I could not tell. Yes, I had: seeing the old crumbled arch of 
El Bab I smiled, remembering a now prehistoric kiss upon my 
fingers. I remembered the slight flinch of the dark eyes as she 
uttered the sad brave truth: "One learns nothing from those 
who return our love." Words which burnt like surgical spirit 
on an open wound, but which cleansed, as all truth does. And 
busy with these memories as I was, I saw with another part of 
my mind the whole of Alexandria unrolling once more on either 
side of me — its captivating detail, its insolence of colouring, its 
crushing poverty and beauty. The little shops, protected from 
the sun by bits of ragged awning in whose darkness was piled 
up every kind of merchandise from live quail to honeycombs 
and lucky mirrors. The fruit-stalls with their brilliant stock 
made doubly brilliant by being displayed upon brighter papers; 
the warm gold of oranges lying on brilliant slips of magenta and 
crimson-lake. The smoky glitter of the coppersmiths' caves. 
Gaily tasselled camel-saddlery. Pottery and blue jade beads 
against the Evil Eye. All this given a sharp prismatic brilliance 
by the crowds milling back and forth, the blare of the caft 
radios, the hawkers' long sobbing cries, the imprecations of 
street-arabs, and the demented ululations of distant mourners 
setting forth at a jog-trot behind the corpse of some notable 
sheik. And here, strolling in the foreground of the painting 
with the insolence of full possession, came plum-blue Ethio- 
pians in snowy turbans, bronze Sudanese with puffy charcoal 

3* 



lips, pewter-skinned Lebanese and Bedouin with the profiles of 
kestrels, woven like brilliant threads upon the monotonous 
blackness of the veiled women, the dark Moslem dream of the 
hidden Paradise which may only be glimpsed through the key- 
hole of the human eye. And lurching down these narrow streets 
with their packs scraping the mud walls plunged the sumpter 
camels with cargoes of green clover, putting down their huge 
soft pads with infinite delicacy. I suddenly remembered Scobie 
giving me a lesson on the priority of salutation: "You must 
realise that it's a question of form. They're regular Britishers 
for politeness, my boy. No good throwing your Salaam Aleikum 
around just anyhow. It must be given first by a camel-rider to a 
man on a horse, by a horseman to a man on a donkey, by a 
donkey-rider to a man on foot, by a man walking to a man 
seated, by a small party to a large one, by the younger to the 
older. . . . It's only in the great schools at home they teach such 
things. But here every nipper has it at his fingers' ends. Now 
repeat the order of battle after me!" It was easier to repeat the 
phrase than to remember the order at this remove in time. 
Smiling at the thought, I strove to re-establish those forgotten 
priorities from memory, while I gazed about me. The whole 
toybox of Egyptian life was still there, every figure in place — 
street-sprinkler, scribe, mourner, harlot, clerk, priest — un- 
touched, it seemed, by time or by war. A sudden melancholy 
invaded me as I watched them, for they had now become a part 
of the past. My sympathy had discovered a new element inside 
itself — detachment. (Scobie used to say, in an expansive mo- 
ment: "Cheer up, me boyo, it takes a lifetime to grow. People 
haven't the patience any more. My mother waited nine months 
for me!" A singular thought.) 

Jolting past the Goharri Mosque I remembered finding one- 
eyed Hamid there one afternoon rubbing a slice of lemon on a 
pilaster before sucking it. This, he had said, was an infallible 
specific against the stone. He used to live somewhere in this 
quarter with its humble caf^s full of native splendours like rose- 

33 



scented drinking water and whole sheep turning on spits, 
stuffed with pigeons, rice, nuts. All the paunch-beguiling meals 
which delighted the ventripotent pachas of the city! 

Somewhere up here, skirting the edge of the Arab quarter the 
tram gives a leap and grinds round abruptly. You can for one 
moment look down through the frieze of shattered buildings 
into the corner of the harbour reserved for craft of shallow 
draught. The hazards of the war at sea had swollen their num- 
bers to overflowing. Framed by the coloured domes there lay 
feluccas and lateen-rig giassas, wine-caiques, schooners, and 
brigantines of every shape and size, from all over the Levant. 
An anthology of masts and spars and haunting Aegean eyes; of 
names and rigs and destinations. They lay there coupled to their 
reflections with the sunlight on them in a deep water-trance. 
Then abruptly they were snatched away and the Grande Cor- 
niche began to unroll, the magnificent long sea-parade which 
frames the modern city, the Hellenistic capital of the bankers and 
cotton-visionaries — all those European bagmen whose enterprise 
had re-ignited and ratified Alexander's dream of conquest after 
the centuries of dust and silence which Amr had imposed upon it. 

Here, too, it was all relatively unchanged save for the dull 
khaki clouds of soldiers moving everywhere and the rash of new 
bars which had sprung up everywhere to feed them. Outside 
the Cecil long lines of transport-trucks had overflowed the 
taxi-ranks. Outside the Consulate an unfamiliar naval sentry 
with rifle and bayonet. I could not say it was all irremediably 
changed, for these visitors had a shiftless and temporary look, 
like countrymen visiting a capital for a fair. Soon a sluice gate 
would open and they would be drawn off into the great reservoir 
of the desert battles. But there were surprises. At the Consulate, 
for example, a very fat man who sat like a king prawn at his 
desk, pressing white hands together whose long filbert nails had 
been carefully polished that 'morning, and who addressed me 
with familiarity. "My task may seem invidious' ' he fluted, 
"yet it is necessary. We are trying to grab everyone who has a 

34 



special aptitude before the Army gets them. I have been sent 
your name by the Ambassador who had designated you for the 
censorship department which we have just opened, and which 
is grotesquely understaffed." 

"The Ambassador?" It was bewildering. 

"He's a friend of yours is he not?" 

"I hardly know him." 

"Nevertheless I am bound to accept his direction, even 
though I am in charge of this operation." 

There were forms to be filled in. The fat man, who was not 
unamiable, and whose name was Kenilworth, obliged by help- 
ing me. "It is a bit of mystery" I said. He shrugged his 
shoulders and spread his white hands. "I suggest you discuss it 
with him when you meet." 

"But I had no intention ..." I said. But it seemed pointless 
to discuss the matter further until I discovered what lay behind 
it. How could Mountolive. . . ? But Kenilworth was talking 
again. "I suppose you might need a week to find yourself 
lodgings here before you settle in. Shall I tell the department 
so?" 

"If you wish" I said in bewilderment. I was dismissed and 
spent some time in the cellars unearthing my battered cabin- 
trunk and selecting from it a few respectable city-clothes. With 
these in a brown paper parcel I walked slowly along the Cor- 
niche towards the Cecil, where I purposed to take a room, have 
a bath and shave, and prepare myself for the visit to the country- 
house. This had begun to loom up rather in my mind, not 
exactly with anxiety but with the disquiet which suspense always 
brings. I stood for a while staring down at the still sea, and it 
was while I was standing thus that the silver Rolls with the 
daffodil hub-caps drew up and a large bearded personage 
jumped out and came galloping towards me with hands out- 
stretched. It was only when I felt his arms hugging my 
shoulders and the beard brushing my cheek in a Gallic greeting 
that I was able to gasp "Pombal!" 

35 



"Darley". Still holding my hands as tenderly, and with tears 
in his eyes, he drew me to one side and sat down heavily on one 
of the stone benches bordering the marine parade. Pombal was 
in the most elegant tenue. His starched cuffs rattled crisply. The 
dark beard and moustache gave him an imposing yet somehow 
forlorn air. Inside all these trappings he seemed quite un- 
changed. He peered through them, like a Tiberius in fancy- 
dress. We gazed at each other for a long moment of silence, 
with emotion. Both knew that the silence we observed was one 
of pain for the fall of France, an event which symbolised all too 
clearly the psychic collapse of Europe itself. We were like 
mourners at an invisible cenotaph during the two minutes' 
silence which commemorates an irremediable failure of the 
human will. I felt in his handclasp all the shame and despair of 
this graceless tragedy and I sought desperately for the phrase 
which might console him, might reassure him that France itself 
could never truly die so long as artists were being born into the 
world. But this world of armies and battles was too intense and 
too concrete to make the thought seem more than of secondary 
importance — for art really means freedom, and it was this 
which was at stake. At last the words came. "Never mind. To- 
day I've seen the little blue cross of Lorraine flowering every- 
where/' 

"You understand" he murmured and squeezed my hand 
again. "I knew you would understand. Even when you most 
criticised her you knew that she meant as much to you as to us/' 
He blew his nose suddenly, with startling loudness, in a clean 
handkerchief and leaned back on the stone bench. With amazing 
suddenness he had become his old self again, the timid, fat, 
irrepressible Pombal of the past. "There is so much to tell you. 
You will come with me now. At once. Not a word. Yes, it is 
Nessim's car. I bought it to save it from the Egyptians. 
Mountolive has fixed you an excellent post. I am still in the old 
flat, but now we have taken the building. You can have the 
whole top floor. It will be like old times again/ ' I was carried 

36 



off my feet by his volubility and by the bewildering variety of 
prospects he described so rapidly and confidently, without 
apparently expecting comment. His English had become 
practically perfect. 

"Old times' ' I stammered. 

But here an expression of pain crossed his fat countenance 
and he groaned, pressing his hands between his knees as he 
uttered the word: "Fosca!" He screwed up his face comically 
and stared at me. "You do not know." He looked almost 
terrified. "I am in love with her." 

I laughed. He shook his head rapidly. "No. Don't laugh." 

"I must, Pombal." 

"I beseech you." And leaning forward with a look of despair 
on his countenance he lowered his voice and prepared to confide 
something to me. His lips moved. It was clearly something of 
tragic importance. At last he brought it out, and the tears 
came into his eyes as he spoke the words: "You don't under- 
stand. Je suis fidele malgre moi." He gasped like a fish and re- 
peated "Malgre moi. It has never happened before, never.' " And 
then abruptly he broke into a despairing whinny with the same 
look of awed bewilderment on his face. How could I forbear to 
laugh? At a blow he had restored Alexandria to me, complete 
and intact — for no memory of it could be complete without the 
thought of Pombal in love. My laughter infected him. He was 
shaking like a jelly. "Stop" he pleaded at last with comic 
pathos, interjecting into the forest of bearded chuckles the 
words. "And I have never slept with her, not once. That is the 
insane thing." This made us laugh more than ever. 

But the chauffeur softly sounded the horn, recalling him to 
himself abruptly, reminding him that he had duties to perform. 
Come" he cried. "I have to take a letter to Pordre before nine. 
Then I'll have you dropped at the flat. We can lunch together. 
Hamid is with me, by the way; he'll be delighted. Hurry up." 
Once more my doubts were not given time to formulate them- 
selves. Clutching my parcel I accompanied him to the familiar 

37 



car, noticing with a pang that its upholstery now smelt of ex- 
pensive cigars and metal-polish. My friend talked rapidly all 
the way to the French Consulate, and I was surprised to find 
that his whole attitude to the Chief had changed. All the old 
bitterness and resentment had vanished. They had both, it 
seemed, abandoned their posts in different capitals (Pombal in 
Rome) in order to join the Free French in Egypt. He spoke of 
Pordre now with tender affection. "He is like a father to me. 
He has been marvellous' ' said my friend rolling his expressive 
dark eye. This somewhat puzzled me until I saw them both 
together and understood in a flash that the fall of their country 
had created this new bond. Pordre had become quite white- 
haired; his frail and absent-minded gentleness had given place 
to the calm resolution of someone grappling with responsibili- 
ties which left no room for affectation. The two men treated 
each other with a courtesy and affection which in truth made 
them seem like father and son rather than colleagues. The 
hand that Pordre placed so lovingly on Pombal's shoulder, the 
face he turned to him, expressed a wistful and lonely pride. 

But the situation of their new Chancery was a somewhat un- 
happy one. The broad windows looked out over the harbour, 
over the French Fleet which lay there at anchor like a symbol of 
all that was malefic in the stars which governed the destiny of 
France. I could see that the very sight of it lying there idle was a 
perpetual reproach to them. And there was no escaping it. At 
every turn taken between the high old-fashioned desks and the 
white wall their eyes fell upon this repellent array of ships. It 
was like a splinter lodged in the optic nerve. Pordre's eye 
kindled with self-reproach and the zealot's hot desire to reform 
these cowardly followers of the personage whom Pombal (in 
his less diplomatic moments) was henceforward to refer to as 
"ce vieux Putain". It was a relief to vent feelings so intense by 
the simple substitution of a letter. The three of us stood there, 
looking down into the harbour at this provoking sight, and 
suddenly the old man burst out: "Why don't you British 

38 



intern them? Send them to India with the Italians. I shall 
never understand it. Forgive me. But do you realise that they 
are allowed to keep their small arms, mount sentries, take 
shore leave, just as if they were a neutral fleet? The admirals 
wine and dine in the town, all intriguing for Vichy. There are 
endless bagarres in the caf£s between our boys and their sailors." 
I could see that it was a subject which was capable of making 
them quite beside themselves with fury. I tried to change it, 
since there was little consolation I could offer. 

I turned instead to Pombars desk on which stood a large 
framed photograph of a French soldier. I asked who it was and 
both men replied simultaneously: "He saved us." Later of 
course I would come to recognise this proud, sad Labrador's 
head as that of de Gaulle himself. 

Pombal's car dropped me at the flat. Forgotten whispers 
stirred in me as I rang the bell. One-eyed Hamid opened to 
me, and after a moment of surprise he performed a curious 
little jump in the air. The original impulse of this jump must 
have been an embrace which he repressed just in time. But he 
put two fingers on my wrist and jumped like a solitary penguin 
on an ice-floe before retreating to give himself room for the 
more elaborate and formal greeting. "Ya Hamid" I cried, as 
delighted as he was. We crossed ourselves ceremonially at each 
other. 

The whole place had been transformed once more, repainted 
and papered and furnished in massive official fashion. Hamid 
led me gloatingly from room to room while I mentally tried to 
reconstruct its original appearance from memories which had 
by now become faded and transposed. It was hard to see 
Melissa shrieking, for example. On the exact spot now stood a 
handsome sideboard crowded with bottles. (Pursewarden had 
once gesticulated from the far corner.) Bits of old furniture 
came back to mind. "Those old things must be knocking 
about somewhere" I thought in quotation from the poet of the 
city.* The only recognisable item was Pombal's old gout-chair 

39 



which had mysteriously reappeared in its old place under the 
window. Had he perhaps flown back with it from Rome? 
That would be like him. The little box-room where Melissa 
and I. ... It was now Hamid's own room. He slept on the 
same uncomfortable bed which I looked at with a kind of 
shrinking feeling, trying to recapture the flavour and ambience 
of those long enchanted afternoons when. . . . But the little 
man was talking. He must prepare lunch. And then he rum- 
maged in a corner and thrust into my hand a crumpled snap- 
shot which he must at some time have stolen from Melissa. It 
was a street-photograph and very faded. Melissa and I walked 
arm in arm talking down Rue Fuad. Her face was half turned 
away from me, smiling — dividing her attention between what 
I was saying so earnestly and the lighted shop-windows we 
passed. It must have been taken, this snapshot, on a winter 
afternoon around the hour of four. What on earth could I have 
been telling her with such earnestness? For the life of me I 
could not recall the time and place; yet there it was, in black 
and white, as they say. Perhaps the words I was uttering were 
momentous, significant — or perhaps they were meaningless! I 
had a pile of books under my arm and was wearing the dirty 
old mackintosh which I finally gave to Zoltan. It was in need 
of a dry-clean. My hair, too, seemed to need cutting at the 
back. Impossible to restore this vanished afternoon to mind! I 
gazed carefully at the circumstantial detail of the picture like 
someone bent upon restoring an irremediably faded fresco. Yes, 
it was winter, at four o'clock. She was wearing her tatty seal- 
skin and carried a handbag which I had not ever seen in her 
possession. "Sometime in August — was it August?' ' I mentally 
quoted to myself again.* 

Turning back to the wretched rack-like bed again I whispered 
her name softly. With surprise and chagrin I discovered that 
she had utterly vanished. The waters had simply closed over her 
head. It was as if she had never existed, never inspired in me 
the pain and pity which (I had always told myself) would live 

40 



on, transmuted into other forms perhaps — but live triumph- 
antly on forever. I had worn her out like an old pair of socks, 
and the utterness of this disappearance surprised and shocked 
me. Could "love" simply wear out like this? "Melissa" I said 
again, hearing the lovely word echo in the silence. Name of a 
sad herb, name of a pilgrim to Eleusis. Was she less now than a 
scent or a flavour? Was she simply a nexus of literary cross- 
references scribbled in the margins of a minor poem? And had 
my love dissolved her in this strange fashion, or was it simply 
the literature I had tried to make out of her? Words, the acid- 
bath of words! I felt guilty. I even tried (with that lying self- 
deception so natural to sentimentalists) to force her to reappear 
by an act of will, to re-evoke a single one of those afternoon 
kisses which had once been for me the sum of the city's many 
meanings. I even tried deliberately to squeeze the tears into my 
eyes, to hypnotise memory by repeating her name like a 
charm. The experiment yielded nothing. Her name had been 
utterly worn out of use! It was truly shameful not to be able to 
evoke the faintest tribute to so all-engulfing an unhappiness. 
Then like the chime of a distant bell I heard the tart voice of 
the dead Pursewarden saying "But our unhappiness was sent to 
regale us. We were intended to revel in it, enjoy it to the full." 
Melissa had been simply one of the many costumes of love! 

I was bathed and changed by the time Pombal hurried in to 
an early lunch, full of the incoherent rapture of his new and 
remarkable state of mind. Fosca, the cause of it, was, he told 
me, a refugee married to a British officer. "How could it have 
come about, this sudden passionate understanding?" He did 
not know. He got up to look at his own face in the hanging 
mirror. "I who believed so many things about love" he went 
on moodily, half addressing his own reflection and combing his 
beard with his fingers, "but never something like this. Even a 
year ago had you said what I am just saying I would have 
answered: 'Pouagh! It is simply a Petrarchian obscenity. Med- 
iaeval rubbish!'. I even used to think that continence was 

41 



medically unhealthy, that the damned thing would atrophy or 
fall off if it were not frequently used. Now look at your un- 
happy — no happy friend! I feel bound and gagged by Fosca's very 
existence. Listen, the last time Keats came in from the desert 
we went out and got drunk. He took me to Golfo's tavern. I 
had a sneaking desire — sort of experimental — to ramoner utie 
poult. Don't laugh. Just to see what had gone wrong with my 
feelings. I drank five Armagnacs to liven them up. I began to 
feel quite like it theoretically. Good, I said to myself, I will 
crack this virginity. I will depuceler this romantic image once 
and for all lest people begin to talk and say that the great 
Pombal is unmanned. But what happened? I became panic- 
stricken! My feelings were quite quite blindcs like a bloody 
tank. The sight of all those girls made me memorise Fosca in 
detail. Everything, even her hands in her lap with her knitting! 
I was cooled as if by an ice cream down my collar. I emptied my 
pockets on the table and fled in a hail of slippers and a torrent 
of cat-calls from my old friends. I was swearing, of course. Not 
that Fosca expects it, no. She tells me to go ahead and have a 
girl if I must. Perhaps this very freedom keeps me in prison? 
Who knows? It is a complete mystery to me. It is strange that 
this girl should drag me by the hair down the paths of honour 
like this — an unfamiliar place.' ' 

Here he struck himself softly on the chest with a gesture of 
reproof mixed with a certain doubtful self-commendation. He 
came and sat down once more saying moodily: "You see, she is 
pregnant by her husband and her sense of honour would not 
permit her to trick a man on active service, who may be killed 
at any time. Specially when she is bearing his child. Qa se 
conpit." 

We ate in silence for a few moments, and then he burst out: 
"But what have I to do with such ideas? Tell me please. We 
only talk, yet it is enough." He spoke with a touch of self- 
contempt. 

"And he?" 

42 



Pombal sighed: "He is an extremely good and kind man, 
with that national kindliness which Pursewarden used to say 
was a kind of compulsion neurosis brought on by the almost 
suicidal boredom of English life! He is handsome, gay, speaks 
three languages. And yet ... it is not that he is f raid, exactly, 
but he is tilde — I mean somewhere in his inner nature. I am not 
sure if he is typical or not. At any rate he seems to embody 
notions of honour which would do credit to a troubadour. It 
isn't that we Europeans lack honour, of course, but we don't 
stress things unnaturally. I mean self-discipline should be more 
than a concession to a behaviour-pattern. I sound confused. 
Yes, I am a little confused in thinking of their relationship. I 
mean something like this: in the depths of his national conceit 
he really believes foreigners incapable of fidelity in love. Yet in 
being so truthful and so faithful she is only doing what comes 
naturally to her, without a false straining after a form. She acts 
as she feels. I think if he really loved her in the sense I mean he 
would not appear always to have merely condescended to rescue 
her from an intolerable situation. I think somewhere inside 
herself, though she is not aware of it, the sense of injustice 
rankles a little bit; she is faithful to him . . . how to say? 
Slightly contemptuously? I don't know. But she does love him 
in this peculiar fashion, the only one he permits. She is a girl of 
delicate feelings. But what is strange is that our own love — 
which neither doubts, and which we have confessed and 
accepted — has been coloured in a curious way by these circum- 
stances. If it has made me happy it has also made me a little 
uncertain of myself; at times I get rebellious. I feel that our 
love is beginning to wear a penitential air — this glorious adven- 
ture. It gets coloured by his own grim attitude which is like 
one of atonement. I wonder if love for afemme galante should be 
quite like this. As for him he also is a chevalier of the middle 
class, as incapable of inflicting pain as of giving physical 
pleasure I should say. Yet withal gentle and quite overwhelm- 
ing in his kindness and uprightness. But merde, one cannot love 

43 



judicially, out of a sense of justice, can one? Somewhere along 
the line he fails her without being conscious of the fact. Nor 
do I think she knows this, at any rate in her conscious mind. 
But when they are together you feel in the presence of some- 
thing incomplete, something which is not cemented but just 
soldered together by good manners and convention. I am aware 
that I sound unkind, but I am only trying to describe exactly 
what I see. For the rest we are good friends and indeed I really 
admire him; when he comes on leave we all go out to dinner 
and talk politics! Ouf!" 

He lay back in his chair, exhausted by this exposition, and 
yawned heavily before consulting his watch. "I suppose" he 
went on with resignation "that you will find it all very strange, 
these new aspects of people; but then everything sounds 
strange here, eh? Pursewarden's sister, Liza, for example — you 
don't know her? She is stone blind. It seems to us all that 
Mountolive is madly in love with her. She came out originally 
to collect his papers and also to find materials for a book about 
him. Allegedly. Anyway she has stayed on at the Embassy ever 
since. When he is in Cairo on duty he visits her every week- 
end! He looks somehow unhappy now — perhaps I do too?" He 
once more consulted the mirror and shook his head decisively. 
Apparently he did not. "Well anyway" he conceded "I am 
probably wrong." 

The clock on the mantelpiece struck and he started up. "I 
must get back to the office for a conference" he said. "What 
about you?" I told him of my projected trip to Karm Abu 
Girg. He whistled and looked at me keenly. "You will see 
Justine again, eh?" He thought for a moment and then 
shrugged his shoulders doubtfully. "A recluse now, isn't she? 
Put under house-arrest by Memlik. Nobody has seen her for 
ages. I don't know what's going on with Nessim either. They've 
quite broken with Mountolive and as an official I have to take 
his line, so we would never even try to meet; even if it were 
allowed, I mean. Clea sees him sometimes. I'm sorry for 

44 



Nessim. When he was in hospital she could not get permission 
to visit him. It is all a merry-go-round, isn't it? Like a Paul 
Jones. New partners until the music stops! But you'll come 
back, won't you, and share this place? Good. Then I'll tell 
Hamid. I must be off. Good luck." 

I had only intended to lie down for a brief sieasta before the 
car came, but such was my fatigue that I plunged into a heavy 
sleep the moment my head touched the pillow; perhaps I 
should have slept the clock round had not the chauffeur 
awakened me. Half-dazed as yet I sat in the familiar car and 
watched the unreal lakelands grow up around with their palms 
and water-wheels — the Egypt which lives outside the cities, 
ancient, pastoral and veiled by mists and mirages. Old 
memories stirred now, some bland and pleasing, others rough 
as old cicatrices. Scar-tissue of old emotions which I should 
soon be shedding. The first momentous step would be to 
encounter Justine again. Would she help or hinder me in the 
task of controlling and evaluating these precious "reliques of 
sensation" as Coleridge calls them? It was hard to know. With 
every succeeding mile I felt anxiety and expectation running 
neck and neck. The Past! 



45 



II 



a ncient lands, in all their prehistoric intactness: lake- 
/\ solitudes hardly brushed by the hurrying feet of the 

/ % centuries where the uninterrupted pedigrees of pelican 
jL, jL. and ibis and heron evolve their slow destinies in com- 
plete seclusion. Clover-patches of green baize swarming with 
snakes and clouds of mosquitoes. A landscape devoid of song- 
birds yet full of owls, hoopoes and kingfishers hunting by day, 
pluming themselves on the banks of the tawny waterways. The 
packs of half-wild dogs foraging, the blindfolded water- 
buffaloes circling the water-wheels in an eternity of darkness. 
The little wayside chancels built of dry mud and floored with 
fresh straw where the pious traveller might say a prayer as he 
journeyed. Egypt! The goose-winged sails scurrying among the 
freshets with perhaps a human voice singing a trailing snatch 
of song. The click-click of the wind in the Indian corn, pluck- 
ing at the coarse leaves, shumbling them. Liquid mud ex- 
ploded by rainstorms in the dust-laden air throwing up 
mirages everywhere, despoiling perspectives. A lump of mud 
swells to the size of a man, a man to the size of a church. 
Whole segments of the sky and land displace, open like a lid, 
or heel over on their side to turn upside down. Flocks of sheep 
walk in and out of these twisted mirrors, appearing and dis- 
appearing, goaded by the quivering nasal cries of invisible 
shepherds. A great confluence of pastoral images from the for- 
gotten history of the old world which still lives on side by 
side with the one we have inherited. The clouds of silver 
winged ants floating up to meet and incandesce in the sunlight. 
The clap of a horse's hoofs on the mud floors of this lost 
world echo like a pulse and the brain swims among these veils 
and melting rainbows. 

And so at last, following the curves of the green embank- 

46 



ments you come upon an old house built sideways upon an 
intersection of violet canals, its cracked and faded shutters 
tightly fastened, its rooms hung with dervish trophies, hide 
shields, bloodstained spears and magnificent carpets. The 
gardens desolate and untended. Only the little figures on the 
wall move their celluloid wings — scarecrows which guard 
against the Evil Eye. The silence of complete desuetude. But 
then the whole countryside of Egypt shares this melancholy 
feeling of having been abandoned, allowed to run to seed, to 
bake and crack and moulder under the brazen sun. 

Turn under an arch and clatter over the cobbles of a dark 
courtyard. Will this be a new point of departure or a return to 
the starting-point? 

It is hard to know. 



1a : ' 



47 



Ill 



She stood at the very top of the long outer staircase 
looking down into the dark courtyard like a sentinel and 
holding in her right hand a branch of candles which 
threw a frail circle of light around her. Very still, as if 
taking part in a tableau vivant. It seemed to me that the tone in 
which she first uttered my name had been deliberately made 
flat and unemphatic, copied perhaps from some queer state of 
mind which she had imposed upon herself. Or perhaps, un- 
certain that it was I, she was merely interrogating the darkness, 
trying to unearth me from it like some obstinate and trouble- 
some memory which had slipped out of place. But the familiar 
voice was to me like the breaking of a seal. I felt like someone 
at last awakened from a sleep which had lasted centuries and as 
I walked slowly and circumspectly up the creaking wooden 
stairway I felt, hovering over me, the breath of a new self- 
possession. I was halfway up when she spoke again, sharply this 
time, with something almost comminatory in her tone. "I 
heard the horses and went all-overish suddenly. I've spilt scent 
all over my dress. I stink, Darley. You will have to forgive 

it 

me. 

She seemed to have become very much thinner. Holding the 
candle high she advanced a step to the stairhead, and after 
gazing anxiously into my eyes placed a small cold kiss upon my 
right cheek. It was as cold as an obituary, dry as leather. As she 
did so I smelt the spilt perfume. She did indeed give off over- 
powering waves of it. Something in the enforced stillness of 
her attitude suggested an inner unsteadiness and the idea 
crossed my mind that perhaps she had been drinking. I was a 
trifle shocked too to see that she had placed a bright patch of 
rouge on each cheek-bone which showed up sharply against a 

4 8 



dead white, overpowdered face. If she was beautiful still it was 
the passive beauty of some Propertian mummy which had been 
clumsily painted to give the illusion of life, or a photograph 
carelessly colour-tinted. "You must not look at my eye" she 
next said, sharply, imperatively: and I saw that her left eyelid 
drooped slightly, threatening to transform her expression into 
something like a leer — and most particularly the welcoming 
smile which she was trying to adopt at this moment. "Do you 
understand?" I nodded. Was the rouge, I wondered, designed 
to distract attention from that drooping eyelid? "I had a small 
stroke" she added under her breath, as if explaining to herself. 
And as she still stood before me with the raised branch of 
candles she seemed to be listening to some other sound. I took 
her hand and we stood together for a long moment thus, staring 
at one another. 

"Have I changed very much?" 

"Not at all." 

"Of course I have. We all have." She spoke now with a 
contemptuous shrillness. She raised my hand briefly and put it 
to her cheek. Then nodding with a puzzled air she turned and 
drew me towards the balcony, walking with a stiff proud step. 
She was clad in a dress of dark taffeta which whispered loudly 
at every movement. The candlelight jumped and danced upon 
the walls. We stopped before a dark doorway and she called out 
"Nessim" in a sharp tone which shocked me, for it was the 
tone in which one would call a servant. After a moment Nessim 
appeared from the shadowy bedroom, obedient as a djinn. 

"Darley's here" she said, with the air of someone handing 
over a parcel, and placing the candles on a low table reclined 
swiftly in a long wicker chair and placed her hand over her 
eyes. 

Nessim had changed into a suit of a more familiar cut, and 
he came nodding and smiling towards me with the accustomed 
expression of affection and solicitude. Yet it was somehow 
different again; he wore a faintly cowed air, shooting little 

49 



glances sideways and downwards towards the figure of Justine, 
and speaking softly as one might in the presence of someone 
asleep. A constraint had suddenly fallen upon us as we seated 
ourselves on that shadowy balcony and lit cigarettes. The 
silence locked like a gear which would not disengage. 

"The child is in bed, delighted with the palace as she calls 
it, and the promise of a pony of her own. I think she will be 
happy." 

Justine suddenly sighed deeply and without uncovering her 
eyes said slowly: "He says we have not changed." 

Nessim swallowed and continued as if he had not heard the 
interruption in the same low voice: "She wanted to stay awake 
till you came but she was too tired." 

Once again the reclining figure in the shadowy corner inter- 
rupted to say: "She found Narouz' little circumcision cap in 
the cupboard. I found her trying it on." She gave a short sharp 
laugh, like a bark, and I saw Nessim wince suddenly and turn 
away his face. 

"We are short of servants" he said in a low voice, hastily as 
if to cement up the holes made in the silence by her last 
remark. 

His air of relief was quite patent when Ali appeared and bade 
us to dinner. He picked up the candles and led us into the 
house. It had a somewhat funereal flavour— the white-robed 
servant with his scarlet belt leading, holding aloft the candles 
in order to light Justine's way. She walked with an air of pre- 
occupation, of remoteness. I followed next with Nessim close 
behind me. So we went in Indian file down the unlighted 
corridors, across high-ceilinged rooms with their walls 
covered in dusty carpets, their floors of rude planks creaking 
under our feet. And so we came at last to a supper-room, long 
and narrow, and suggesting a forgotten sophistication which 
was Ottoman perhaps; say, a room in a forgotten winter palace 
of Abdul Hamid, its highly carved window-screens of filigree 
looking out upon a neglected rose-garden. Here the candlelight 

5o 



with its luminous shadows was ideal as an adjunct to furnish- 
ings which were, in themselves, strident. The golds and the 
reds and the violets would in full light have seemed unbearable. 
By candlelight they had a subdued magnificence. 

We seated ourselves at the supper-table and once more I 
became conscious of the almost cowed expression of Nessim as 
he gazed around him. It is perhaps not the word. It was as if he 
expected some sudden explosion, expected some unforeseen 
reproach to break from her lips. He was mentally prepared to 
parry it, to fend it off with a tender politeness. But Justine 
ignored us. Her first act was to pour out a glass of red wine. 
This she raised to the light as if to verify its colour. Then she 
dipped it ironically to each of us in turn like a flag and drank it 
off all in one motion before replacing the glass on the table. 
The touches of rouge gave her an enflamed look which hardly 
matched the half-drowsy stupefaction of her glance. She was 
wearing no jewelry. Her nails were painted with gold polish. 
Putting her elbows on the table she propped her chin for a long 
moment as she studied us keenly, first one and then the other. 
Then she sighed, as if replete, and said: "Yes, we have all 
changed", and turning swiftly like an accuser she stabbed her 
finger at her husband and said: "He has lost an eye." 

Nessim pointedly ignored this, passing some item of table 
fare towards her as if to distract her from so distressing a topic. 
She sighed again and said: "Darley, you look much better, but 
your hands are cracked and calloused. I felt it on my cheek/' 

"Wood-cutting I expect. " 
Ah. So! But you look well, very well/' 

(A week later she would telephone Clea and say: "Dear God, 
how coarse he has become. What little trace of sensibility he 
had has been swamped by the peasant/') 

In the silence Nessim coughed nervously and fingered the 
black patch over his eye. Clearly he misliked the tone of her 
voice, distrusted the weight of the atmosphere under which one 
could feel, building up slowly like a wave, the pressure of a 

5 1 



hate which was the newest element among so many novelties of 
speech and manner. Had she really turned into a shrew? Was 
she ill? It was difficult to disinter the memory of that magical 
dark mistress of the past whose every gesture, however ill- 
advised and ill-considered, rang with the newly minted splen- 
dour of complete generosity. ("So you come back" she was 
saying harshly "and find us all locked up in Karm. Like old 
figures in a forgotten account book. Bad debts, Darley. 
Fugitives from justice, eh Nessim?") 

There was nothing to be said in answer to such bitter sallies. 
We ate in silence under the quiet ministration of the Arab 
servant. Nessim addressed an occasional hurried remark to me 
on some neutral topic, brief, monosyllabic. Unhappily we felt 
the silence draining out around us, emptying like some great 
reservoir. Soon we should be left there, planted in our chairs 
like effigies. Presently the servant came in with two charged 
thermos flasks and a package of food which he placed at the end 
of the table. Justine's voice kindled with a kind of insolence as 
she said: "So you are going back tonight?" 

Nessim nodded shyly and said: "Yes, I'm on duty again." 
Clearing his throat he added to me: "It is only four times a 
week. It gives me something to do." 

"Something to do" she said clearly, derisively. "To lose his 
eye and his finger gives him something to do. Tell the truth, 
my dear, you would do anything to get away from this house." 
Then leaning forward towards me she said: "To get away from 
me, Darley. I drive him nearly mad with my scenes. That is 
what he says." It was horribly embarrassing in its vulgarity. 

The servant came in with his duty clothes carefully pressed 
and ironed, and Nessim rose, excusing himself with a word and 
a wry smile. We were left alone. Justine poured out a glass of 
wine. Then, in the act of raising it to her lips she surprised 
me with a wink and the words: "Truth will out." 

"How long have you been locked up here?" I asked. 

"Don't speak of it." 

52 



"But is there no way. ..." 

"He has managed to partly escape. Not me. Drink, Darley, 
drink your wine." 

I drank in silence, and in a few minutes Nessim appeared 
once more, in uniform and evidently ready for his night jour- 
ney. As if by common consent we all rose, the servant took up 
the candles and once more conducted us back to the balcony in 
lugubrious procession. During our absence one corner had been 
spread with carpets and divans while extra candlesticks and 
smoking materials stood upon inlaid side-tables. The night was 
still, and almost tepid. The candle-flames hardly moved. 
Sounds of the great lake came ebbing in upon us from the outer 
darkness. Nessim said a hurried good-bye and we heard the 
diminishing clip of his horse's hoofs gradually fade as he took 
the road to the ford. I turned my head to look at Justine. She 
was holding up her wrists at me, her face carved into a grimace. 
She held them joined together as if by invisible manacles. She 
exhibited these imaginary handcuffs for a long moment before 
dropping her hands back into her lap, and then, abruptly, 
swift as a snake, she crossed to the divan where I lay and sat 
down at my feet, uttering as she did so, in a voice vibrating 
with remorseful resentment, the words: "Why, Darley? O 
why}" It was as if she were interrogating not merely destiny or 
fate but the very workings of the universe itself in these 
thrilling poignant tones. Some of the old beauty almost flashed 
out in this ardour to trouble me like an echo. But the perfume! 
At such close quarters the spilled perfume was over-powering, 
almost nauseating. 

Yet suddenly now all our constraint vanished and we were at 
last able to talk. It was as if this outburst had exploded the 
bubble of listlessness in which we had been enveloped all 
evening. "You see a different me" she cried in a voice almost of 
triumph. "But once again the difference lies in you, in what 
you imagine you see!" Her words rattled down like a hail of 
sods on an empty coffin. "How is it that you can feel no 

53 



resentment against me? To forgive such treachery so easily — 
why, it is unmanly. Not to hate such a vampire? It is un- 
natural. Nor could you ever understand my sense of humiliation 
at not being able to regale, yes regale you, my dear, with the 
treasures of my inner nature as a mistress. And yet, in truth, I 
enjoyed deceiving you, I must not deny it. But also there was 
regret in only offering you the pitiful simulacrum of a love 
(Ha! that word again!) which was sapped by deceit. I suppose 
this betrays the bottomless female vanity again: to desire the 
worst of two worlds, of both words — love and deceit. Yet it is 
strange that now, when you know the truth, and I am free to 
offer you affection, I feel only increased self-contempt. Am I 
enough of a woman to feel that the real sin against the Holy 
Ghost is dishonesty in love? But what pretentious rubbish — for 
love admits of no honesty by its very nature/ ' 

So she went on, hardly heeding me, arguing my life away, 
moving obsessively up and down the cobweb of her own 
devising, creating images and beheading them instantly before 
my eyes. What could she hope to prove? Then she placed her 
head briefly against my knee and said: "Now that I am free to 
hate or love it is comical to feel only fury at this new self- 
possession of yours! You have escaped me somewhere. But 
what else was I to expect?'' 

In a curious sort of way this was true. To my surprise I now 
felt the power to wound her for the first time, even to sub- 
jugate her purely by my indifference! "Yet the truth" I said 
"is that I feel no resentment for the past. On the contrary I 
am full of gratitude because an experience which was perhaps 
banal in itself (even perhaps disgusting for you) was for me 
immeasurably enriching!" She turned away saying harshly: 
"Then we should both be laughing now." 

Together we sat staring out into the darkness for a long 
while. Then she shivered, lighted a cigarette and resumed the 
thread of her interior monologue. "The post-mortems of the 
undone! What could you have seen in it all I wonder? We are 

54 



after all totally ignorant of one another, presenting selected 
fictions to each other! I suppose we all observe each other with 
the same immense ignorance. I used, in my moments of guilt 
long afterwards, to try and imagine that we might one day 
become lovers again, on a new basis. What a farce! I pictured 
myself making it up to you, expiating my deceit, repaying my 
debt. But ... I knew that you would always prefer your own 
mythical picture, framed by the five senses, to anything more 
truthful. But now, then, tell me — which of us was the greater 
liar? I cheated you, you cheated yourself.' ' 

These observations, which at another time, in another con- 
text, might have had the power to reduce me to ashes, were 
now vitally important to me in a new way. "However hard the 
road, one is forced to come to terms with truth at last" wrote 
Pursewarden somewhere. Yes, but unexpectedly I was dis- 
covering that truth was nourishing — the cold spray of a wave 
which carried one always a little further towards self-realisation. 
I saw now that my own Justine had indeed been an illusionist's 
creation, raised upon the faulty armature of misinterpreted 
words, actions, gestures. Truly there was no blame here; the 
real culprit was my love which had invented an image on which 
to feed. Nor was there any question of dishonesty, for the 
picture was coloured after the necessities of the love which 
invented it. Lovers, like doctors, colouring an unpalatable 
medicine to make it easier for the unwary to swallow! No, this 
could not have been otherwise, I fully realised. 

Something more, fully as engrossing: I also saw that lover and 
loved, observer and observed, throw down a field about each 
other ("Perception is shaped like an embrace — the poison 
enters with the embrace" as Pursewarden writes). They then 
infer the properties of their love, judging it from this narrow 
field with its huge margins of unknown ("the refraction"), and 
proceed to refer it to a generalised conception of something 
constant in its qualities and universal in its operation. How 
valuable a lesson this was, both to art and to life! I had only 

55 



been attesting, in all I had written, to the power of an image 
which I had created involuntarily by the mere act of seeing Justine. 
There was no question of true or false. Nymph? Goddess? 
Vampire? Yes, she was all of these, and none of them. She was, 
like every woman, everything that the mind of a man (let us 
define "man" as a poet perpetually conspiring against himself) 
— that the mind of man wished to imagine. She was there for- 
ever, and she had never existed! Under all these masks there was 
only another woman, every woman, like a lay figure in a dress- 
maker's shop, waiting for the poet to clothe her, breathe life 
into her. In understanding all this for the first time I began to 
realise with awe the enormous reflexive power of woman — the 
fecund passivity with which, like the moon, she borrows her 
second-hand light from the male sun. How could I help but be 
anything but grateful for such vital information? What did they 
matter, the lies, deceptions, follies, in comparison to this truth? 

Yet while this new knowledge compelled my admiration for 
her more than ever — as symbol of woman, so to speak — I was 
puzzled to explain the new element which had crept in here: a 
flavour of disgust for her personality and its attributes. The 
scent! Its cloying richness half sickened me. The touch of the 
dark head against my knee stirred dim feelings of revulsion in 
me. I was almost tempted to embrace her once more in order to 
explore this engrossing and inexplicable novelty of feeling 
further! Could it be that a few items of information merely, 
facts like sand trickling into the hour-glass of the mind, had 
irrevocably altered the image's qualities — turning it from 
something once desirable to something which now stirred dis- 
gust? Yes, the same process, the very same love-process, I told 
myself. This was the grim metamorphosis brought about by the 
acid-bath of truth — as Pursewarden might say. 

Still we sat together on that shadowy balcony, prisoners of 
memory, still we talked on: and still it remained unchanged, 
this new disposition of selves, the opposition of new facts of 
mind. 

56 



At last she took a lantern and a velvet cloak and we walked 
about for a while in that tideless night, coming at last to a 
great nubk tree whose branches were loaded with votive 
offerings. Here Nessim's brother had been found dead. She 
held the lantern high to light the tree, reminding me that the 
"nubk" forms the great circular palisade of trees which en- 
circles the Moslem Paradise. "As for Narouz, his death hangs 
heavy on Nessim because people say that he ordered it himself 
— the Copts say so. It has become like a family curse to him. 
His mother is ill, but she will never return to this house, she 
says. Nor does he wish her to. He gets quite cold with rage 
when I speak of her. He says he wishes she would die! So here 
we are cooped up together. I sit all night reading — guess what? 
— a big bundle of love-letters to her which she left behind! 
Mountolive's love-letters! More confusion, more unexplored 
corners!" She raised the lantern and looked closely into my 
eyes: "Ah, but this unhappiness is not just ennui, spleen. There 
is also a desire to swallow the world. I have been experimenting 
with drugs of late, the sleep-givers!" 

And so back in silence to the great rustling house with its 
dusty smells. 

"He says we will escape one day and go to Switzerland 
where at least he still has money. But when, but when? And 
now this war! Pursewarden said that my sense of guilt was 
atrophied. It is simply that I have no power to decide things 
now, any more. I feel as if my will had snapped. But it will 
pass." Then suddenly, greedily she grasped my hand and said: 
"But thank God, you are here. Just to talk is such a soulagcment. 
We spend whole weeks together without exchanging a word." 

We were seated once more on the clumsy divans by the light 
of candles. She lit a silver-tipped cigarette and smoked with 
short decisive inspirations as the monologue went on, un- 
rolling on the night, winding away in the darkness like a river. 

"When everything collapsed in Palestine, all our dumps dis- 
covered and captured, the Jews at once turned on Nessim 

57 






accusing him of treachery, because he was friendly with Mount- 
olive. We were between Memlik and the hostile Jews, in dis- 
grace with both. The Jews expelled me. This was when I saw 
Clea again; I so badly needed news and yet I couldn't confide in 
her. Then Nessim came over the border to get me. He found 
me like a mad woman. I was in despair! And he thought it was 
because of the failure of our plans. It was, of course, it was; but 
there was another and deeper reason. While we were conspira- 
tors, joined by our work and its dangers, I could feel truly 
passionate about him. But to be under house-arrest, compelled 
to idle away my time alone with him, in his company. ... I 
knew I should die of boredom. My tears, my lamentations were 
those of a woman forced against her will to take the veil. Ah 
but you will not understand, being a northerner. How could 
you? To be able to love a man fully, but only in a single pos- 
ture, so to speak. You see, when he does not act, Nessim is 
nothing; he is completely flavourless, not in touch with himself 
at any point. Then he has no real self to interest a woman, to 
grip her. In a word he is really a pure idealist. When a sense of 
destiny consumes him he becomes truly splendid. It was as an 
actor that he magnetised me, illuminated me for myself. But 
as a fellow prisoner, in defeat — he predisposes to ennui, 
migraine, thoughts of utter banality like suicide! That is why 
from time to time I drive my claws into his flesh. In despair!" 

"And Pursewarden?" 

"Ah! Pursewarden. That is something different again. I 
cannot think of him without smiling. There my failure was of 
a totally different order. My feeling for him was — how shall I 
say? — almost incestuous, if you like; like one's love for a 
beloved, an incorrigible elder brother. I tried so hard to pene- 
trate into his confidences. He was too clever, or perhaps too 
egotistical. He defended himself against loving me by making me 
laugh. Yet I achieved with him, even so very briefly, a tantalising 
inkling that there might be other ways of living open to me if 
only I could find them. But he was a tricky one. He used to 

58 



say: 'An artist saddled with a woman is like a spaniel with a 
tick in its ear; it itches, it draws blood, one cannot reach it. 
Will some kindly grown-up please. . . ?' Perhaps he was 
utterly lovable because quite out of reach? It is hard to say 
these things. One word 'love' has to do service for so many 
different kinds of the same animal. It was he, too, who recon- 
ciled me to that whole business of the rape, remember? All that 
nonsense of Arnauti's in Moeurs, all those psychologists! His 
single observation stuck like a thorn. He said: 'Clearly you 
enjoyed it, as any child would, and probably even invited it. 
You have wasted all this time trying to come to terms with an 
imaginary conception of damage done to you, Try dropping this 
invented guilt and telling yourself that the thing was both 
pleasurable and meaningless. Every neurosis is made to 
measure! ' It was curious that a few words like this, and an 
ironic chuckle, could do what all the others could not do for 
me. Suddenly everything seemed to lift, get lighter, move 
about. Like cargo shifting in a vessel. I felt faint and rather 
sick, which puzzled me. Then later on a space slowly cleared. 
It was like feeling creeping back into a paralysed hand 
again." 

She was silent for a moment before going on. "I still do not 
quite know how he saw us. Perhaps with contempt as the 
fabricators of our own misfortunes. One can hardly blame him 
for clinging to his own secrets like a limpet. Yet he hardly kept 
them, for he had a so-called Check hardly less formidable than 
mine, something which had plucked and gutted all sensation 
for him; so really in a way perhaps his strength was really a 
great weakness! You are silent, have I wounded you? I hope not, 
I hope your self-esteem is strong enough to face these truths of 
our old relationship. I should like to get it all off my chest, to 
come to terms with you — can you understand? To confess 
everything and wipe the slate clean. Look, even that first, that 
very first afternoon when I came to you — remember? You told 
me once how momentous it was. When you were ill in bed 

59 



with sunburn, remember? Well, I had just been kicked out of 
his hotel-room against my will and was quite beside myself 
with fury. Strange to think that every word I then addressed to 
you was spoken mentally to him, to Pursewarden! In your bed 
it was he I embraced and subjugated in my mind. And yet 
again, in another dimension, everything I felt and did then was 
really for Nessim. At the bottom of my rubbish heap of a heart 
there was really Nessim, and the plan. My innermost life was 
rooted in this crazy adventure. Laugh now, Darley! Let me see 
you laugh for a change. You look rueful, but why should you? 
We are all in the grip of the emotional field which we throw 
down about one another — you yourself have said it. Perhaps our 
only sickness is to desire a truth which we cannot bear rather 
than to rest content with the fictions we manufacture out of 
each other/ 1 

She suddenly uttered a short ironic laugh and walked to the 
balcony's edge to drop the smouldering stub of her cigarette 
out into the darkness. Then she turned, and standing in front of 
me with a serious face, as if playing a game with a child, she 
softly patted her palms together, intoning the names, /'Purse- 
warden and Liza, Darley and Melissa, Mountolive and Leila, 
Nessim and Justine, Narouz and Clea. . . . Here comes a 
candle to light them to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop 
off their heads. The sort of pattern we make should be of 
interest to someone; or is it just a meaningless display of 
coloured fireworks, the actions of human beings or of a set of 
dusty puppets which could be hung up in the corner of a 
writer's mind? I suppose you ask yourself the question." 

"Why did you mention Narouz?" 

"After he died I discovered some letters to Clea; in his cup- 
board along with the old circumcision-cap there was a huge 
nosegay of wax flowers and a candle the height of a man. As 
you know a Copt proposes with these. But he never had the 
courage to send them! How I laughed!" 

"You laughed?" 

60 



"Yes, laughed until the tears ran down my cheeks. But I was 
really laughing at myself, at you, at all of us. One stumbles 
over it at every turn of the road, doesn't one; under every sofa 
the same corpse, in every cupboard the same skeleton? What 
can one do but laugh?' ' 

It was late by now, and she lighted my way to the gaunt 
guest-bedroom where I found a bed made up for me, and 
placed the candles on the old-fashioned chest of drawers. I slept 
almost at once. 

It must have been at some time not far off dawn when I 
awoke to find her standing beside the bed naked, with her 
hands joined in supplication like an Arab mendicant, like some 
beggar-woman of the streets. I started up. "I ask nothing of 
you" she said, "nothing at all but only to lie in your arms for 
the comfort of it. My head is bursting tonight and the medi- 
cines won't bring sleep. I do not want to be left to the mercies 
of my own imagination. Only for the comfort, Darley. A few 
strokes and endearments, that is all I beg you." 

I made room for her listlessly, still half asleep. She wept and 
trembled and muttered for a long time before I was able to 
quieten her. But at last she fell asleep with her dark head on 
the pillow beside me. 

I lay awake for a long time to taste, with perplexity and 
wonder, the disgust that had now surged up in me, blotting out 
every other feeling. From where had it come? The perfume! 
The unbearable perfume and the smell of her body. Some lines 
from a poem of Pursewarden's drifted through my mind. 

"Delivered by her to what drunken caresses, 
Of mouths half eaten like soft rank fruit, 
From which one takes a single bite, 
A mouthful of the darkness where we bleed." 

The once magnificent image of my love lay now in the hollow 
of my arm, defenceless as a patient on an operating table, 
hardly breathing. It was useless even to repeat her name which 

61 



once held so much fearful magic that it had the power to slow 
the blood in my veins. She had become a woman at last, lying 
there, soiled and tattered, like a dead bird in a gutter, her 
hands crumpled into claws. It was as if some huge iron door 
had closed forever in my heart. 

I could hardly wait for that slow dawn to bring me release. 
I could hardly wait to be gone. 



62 



IV 



Walking about the streets of the summer capital 
once more, walking by spring sunlight, and a 
cloudless skirmishing blue sea — half-asleep and 
half-awake — I felt like the Adam of the medi- 
aeval legends: the world-compounded body of a man whose 
flesh was soil, whose bones were stones, whose blood water, 
whose hair was grass, whose eyesight sunlight, whose breath 
was wind, and whose thoughts were clouds. And weightless 
now, as if after some long wasting illness, I found myself 
turned adrift again to float upon the shallows of Mareotis with 
its old tide-marks of appetites and desires refunded into the 
history of the place: an ancient city with all its cruelties intact, 
pitched upon a desert and a lake. Walking down with remem- 
bered grooves of streets which extended on every side, radiating 
out like the arms of a starfish from the axis of its founder's 
tomb. Footfalls echoing in the memory, forgotten scenes and 
conversations springing up at me from the walls, the cafe* 
tables, the shuttered rooms with cracked and peeling ceilings. 
Alexandria, princess and whore. The royal city and the anus 
mundi. She would never change so long as the races continued 
to seethe here like must in a vat; so long as the streets and 
squares still gushed and spouted with the fermentation of 
these diverse passions and spites, rages and sudden calms. A 
fecund desert of human loves littered with the whitening bones 
of its exiles. Tall palms and minarets marrying in the sky. A 
hive of white mansions flanking those narrow and abandoned 
streets of mud which were racked all night by Arab music and 
the cries of girls who so easily disposed of their body's weari- 
some baggage (which galled them) and offered to the night the 
passionate kisses which money could not disflavour. The sad- 

63 



ness and beatitude of this human conjunction which perpetu- 
ated itself to eternity, an endless cycle of rebirth and annihila- 
tion which alone could teach and reform by its destructive 
power. ("One makes love only to confirm one's loneliness" said 
Pursewarden, and at another time Justine added like a coda 
"A woman's best love letters are always written to the man she 
is betraying" as she turned an immemorial head on a high 
balcony, hanging above a lighted city where the leaves of the 
trees seemed painted by the electric signs, where the pigeons 
tumbled as if from shelves. . . .) A great honeycomb of faces 
and gestures. 

"We become what we dream" said Balthazar, still hunting 
among these grey paving stones for the key to a watch which is 
Time. "We achieve in reality, in substance, only the pictures of 
the imagination." The city makes no answer to such proposi- 
tions. Unheeding it coils about the sleeping lives like some 
great anaconda digesting a meal. Among those shining coils the 
pitiable human world went its way, unaware and unbelieving, 
repeating to infinity its gestures of despair, repentance, and 
love. Demonax the philosopher said: "Nobody wishes to be 
evil" and was called a cynic for his pains. And Pursewarden in 
another age, in another tongue replied: "Even to be half- 
awake among sleep-walkers is frightening at first. Later one 
learns to dissimulate!" 

I could feel the ambience of the city on me once more, its 
etiolated beauties spreading their tentacles out to grasp at my 
sleeve. I felt more summers coming, summers with fresh 
despairs, fresh onslaughts of the "bayonets of time". My life 
would rot away afresh in stifling offices to the tepid whirl of 
electric fans, by the light of dusty unshaded bulbs hanging 
from the cracked ceilings of renovated tenements. At the Cafe* 
Al Aktar, seated before a green menthe, listening to the sulky 
bubbles in the narguilehs I would have time to catechise the 
silences which followed the cries of the hawkers and the clatter 
of backgammon-boards. Still the same phantoms would pass 

6 4 



and repass in the Nebi Daniel, the gleaming limousines of the 
bankers would bear their choice freight of painted ladies to 
distant bridge-tables, to the synagogue, the fortune-teller, the 
smart cafe\ Once all this had power to wound. And now? 
Snatches of a quartet squirted from a cafe with scarlet awnings 
reminded me of Clea once saying: " Music was invented to 
confirm human loneliness." But if I walked here with attention 
and even a certain tenderness it was because for me the city was 
something which I myself had deflowered, at whose hands I 
had learned to ascribe some particular meaning to fortune. 
These patched and faded walls, the lime wash cracking into a 
million oyster-coloured patches, only imitated the skins of the 
lepers who whined here on the edge of the Arab quarter; it 
was simply the hide of the place itself, peeling and caking 
away under the sun. 

Even the war had come to terms with the city, had indeed 
stimulated its trade with its bands of aimless soldiers walking 
about with that grim air of unflinching desperation with 
which Anglo-Saxons embark upon their pleasures; their own 
demagnetised women were all in uniform now which gave 
them a ravenous air — as if they could drink the blood of the 
innocents while it was still warm. The brothels had over- 
flowed and gloriously engulfed a whole quarter of the town 
around the old square. If anything the war had brought an air 
of tipsy carnival rather than anything else; even the nightly 
bombardments of the harbour were brushed aside by day, 
shrugged away like nightmares, hardly remembered as more 
than an inconvenience. For the rest, nothing had fundamentally 
changed. The brokers still sat on the steps of the Mohammed 
Ali club sipping their newspapers. The old horse-drawn 
gharries still clopped about upon their listless errands. The 
crowds still thronged the white Corniche to take the frail 
spring sunlight. Balconies crowded with wet linen and tittering 
girls. The Alexandrians still moved inside the murex-tinted 
cyclorama of the life they imagined, f "Life is more complicated 

65 



than we think, yet far simpler than anyone dares to imagine. ") 
Voices of girls, stabbing of Arab quarter-tones, and from the 
synagogue a metallic drone punctuated by the jingle of a sis- 
trum. On the floor of the Bourse they were screaming like one 
huge animal in pain. The money-changers were arranging their 
currencies like sweets upon the big squared boards. Pashas in 
scarlet flower-pots reclining in immense cars like gleaming 
sarcophagi. A dwarf playing a mandolin. An immense eunuch 
with a carbuncle the size of a brooch eating pastry. A legless 
man propped on a trolley, dribbling. In all this furious 
acceleration of the mind I thought suddenly of Clea — her thick 
eyelashes fragmenting every glance of the magnificent eyes — 
and wondered vaguely when she would appear. But in the 
meantime my straying footsteps had led me back to the narrow 
opening of the Rue Lepsius, to the worm-eaten room with the 
cane Jrhair which creaked all night, and where once the old 
poet of the city had recited 'The Barbarians'. I felt the stairs 
creak again under my tread. On the door was a notice in 
Arabic which said 'Silence'. The latch was hooked back. 

Balthazar's voice sounded strangely thin and far away as he 
bade me to enter. The shutters were drawn and the room was 
shrouded in half-darkness. He was lying in bed. I saw with a 
considerable shock that his hair was quite white which made 
him look like an ancient version of himself. It took me a 
moment or two to realise that it was not dyed. But how he had 
changed! One cannot exclaim to a friend: "My God, how 
much you have aged!" Yet this is what I almost did, quite 
involuntarily. 

"Darley!" he said feebly, and held up in welcome hands 
swollen to the size of boxing-gloves by the bandages which 
swathed them. 

"What on earth have you been doing to yourself?" 

He drew a long sad sigh of vexation and nodded towards a 
chair. The room was in areat disorder. A mountain of books 

o 

and papers on the floor by the window. An unemptied chamber- 

66 



pot. A chessboard with the pieces all lying in confusion. A 
newspaper. A cheese-roll on a plate with an apple. The wash- 
basin full of dirty plates. Beside him in a glass of some cloudy 
fluid stood a glittering pair of false teeth on which his feverish 
eye dwelt from time to time with confused perplexity. "You 
have heard nothing? That surprises me. Bad news, news of a 
scandal, travels so fast and so far I should have thought that by 
now you had heard. It is a long story. Shall I tell you and 
provoke the look of tactful commiseration with which Mount- 
olive sits down to play chess with me every afternoon?' ' 

"But your hands. . . ." 

"I shall come to those in due course. It was a little idea I got 
from your manuscript. But the real culprits are these, I think, 
these false teeth in the glass. Don't they glitter bewitchingly? 
I am sure it was the teeth which set me off. When I found that 
I was about to lose my teeth I suddenly began to behave like a 
woman at the change of life. How else can I explain falling in 
love like a youth?" He cauterised the question with a dazed 
laugh. 

"First the Cabal — which is now disbanded; it went the way 
of all words. Mystagogues arose, theologians, all the resource- 
ful bigotry that heaps up around a sect and spells dogma! But 
the thing had to me a special meaning, a mistaken and un- 
conscious meaning, but nevertheless a clear one. I thought that 
slowly, by degrees, I should be released from the bondage of 
my appetites, of the flesh. I should at last, I felt, find a philo- 
sophic calm and balance which would expunge the passional 
nature, sterilise my actions. I thought of course that I had no 
such prejuges at the time; that my quest for truth was quite 
pure. But unconsciously I was using the Cabal to this precise 
end — instead of letting it use me. First miscalculation! Pass me 
some water from the pitcher over there." He drank thirstily 
through his new pink gums. "Now comes the absurdity. I 
found I must lose my teeth. This caused the most frightful up- 
heaval. It seemed to me like a death-sentence, like a confirma- 

67 



tion of growing old, of getting beyond the reach of life itself. 
I have always been fastidious about mouths, always hated rank 
breath and coated tongues; but most of all false teeth! Uncon- 
sciously, then, I must have somehow pushed myself to this 
ridiculous thing — as if it were a last desperate fling before old 
age settled over me. Don't laugh. I fell in love in a way that I 
have never done before, at least not since I was eighteen. 
'Kisses sharp as quills' says the proverb; or as Pursewarden 
might say 'Once more the cunning gonads on the prowl, the 
dragnet of the seed, the old biological terror'. But my dear 
Darley, this was no joke. I still had my own teeth! But the 
object of my choice, a Greek actor, was the most disastrous that 
anyone could hit upon. To look like a god, to have a charm 
like a shower of silver arrows — and yet to be simply a small- 
spirited, dirty, venal and empty personage: that was Pana- 
giotis! I knew it. It seemed to make no difference whatsoever. 
I cursed myself in the mirror. But I was powerless to behave 
otherwise. And, in truth, all this might have passed off as so 
much else had he not pushed me to outrageous jealousies, 
terrific scenes of recrimination. I remember that old Purse- 
warden used to say: 'Ah! you Jews, you have the knack of 
suffering' and I used to reply with a quotation from Mommsen 
about the bloody Celts: 'They have shaken all states and 
founded none. They nowhere created a great state or developed 
a distinctive culture of their own.' No, this was not simply an 
expression of minority-fever: this was the sort of murderous 
passion of which one has read, and for which our city is 
famous! Within a matter of months I became a hopeless 
drunkard. I was always found hanging about the brothels. I 
obtained drugs under prescription for him to sell. Anything, 
lest he should leave me. I became as weak as a woman. A 
terrific scandal, rather a series of them, made my practice 
dwindle until it is now non-existent. Amaril is keeping the 
clinic going out of kindness until I can pick myself off the 
floor. I was dragged across the floor of the club, holding on to 

68 



his coat and imploring him not to leave me! I was knocked 
down in Rue Fuad, thrashed with a cane outside the French 
Consulate. I found myself surrounded by long-faced and con- 
cerned friends who did everything they could to avert disaster. 
Useless. I had become quite impossible! All this went on, this 
ferocious life — and really I enjoyed being debased in a queer 
way, being whipped and scorned, reduced to a wreck! It was as 
if I wanted to swallow the world, to drain the sore of love until 
it healed. I was pushed to the very extremity of myself, yet I 
myself was doing the pushing: or was it the teeth?" He cast a 
sulky furious look in their direction and sighed, moving his 
head about as if with inner anguish at the memory of these 
misdeeds. 

"Then of course it came to an end, as everything does, even 
presumably life! There is no merit in suffering as I did, 
dumbly like a pack animal, galled by intolerable sores it cannot 
reach with its tongue. It was then that I remembered a remark 
in your manuscript about the ugliness of my hands. Why did I 
not cut them off and throw them in the sea as you had so 
thoughtfully recommended? This was the question that arose in 
my mind. At the time I was so numb with drugs and drink that 
I did not imagine I would feel anything. However I made an 
attempt, but it is harder than you imagine, all that gristle! I 
was like those fools who cut their throats and come bang up 
against the oesophagus. They always live. But when I desisted 
with pain I thought of another writer, Petronius. (The part 
that literature plays in our lives!) I lay down in a hot bath. 
But the blood wouldn't run, or perhaps I had no more. The 
colour of bitumen it seemed, the few coarse drops I persuaded 
to trickle. I was about to try other ways of alleviating the pain 
when Amaril appeared at his most abusive and brought me to 
my senses by giving me a deep sedation of some twenty hours 
during which he tidied up my corpse as well as my room. Then 
I was very ill, with shame I believe. Yes, it was chiefly shame, 
though of course I was much weakened by the absurd excesses 

69 



to which I had been pushed. I submitted to Pierre Balbz who 
removed the teeth and provided me with this set of glittering 
snappers — art nouveaul Amaril tried in his clumsy way to 
analyse me — but what is one to say of this very approximate 
science which has carelessly overflowed into anthropology on 
one side, theology on the other? There is much they do not 
know as yet: for instance that one kneels in church because one 
kneels to enter a woman, or that circumcision is derived from 
the clipping of the vine, without which it will run to leaf and 
produce no fruit! I had no philosophic system on which to lean 
as even Da Capo did. Do you remember Capodistria's exposi- 
tion of the nature of the universe? 'The world is a biological 
phenomenon which will only come to an end when every single 
man has had all the women, every woman all the men. Clearly 
this will take some time. Meanwhile there is nothing to do but 
to help forward the forces of nature by treading the grapes as 
hard as we can. As for an afterlife — what will it consist of but 
satiety? The play of shadows in Paradise — pretty hanoums flit- 
ting across the screens of memory, no longer desired, no longer 
desiring to be desired. Both at rest at last. But clearly it cannot 
be done all at once. Patience! Avanti!' Yes, I did a lot of slow 
and careful thinking as I lay here, listening to the creak of the 
cane chair and the noises from the street. My friends were very 
good and often visited me with gifts and conversations that left 
me headaches. So I gradually began to swim up to the surface 
again, with infinite slowness. I said to myself 'Life is the 
master. We have been living against the grain of our intellects. 
The real teacher is endurance.' I had learned something, but at 
what a cost! 

"If only I had had the courage to tackle my love whole- 
heartedly I would have served the ideas of the Cabal better. A 
paradox, you think? Perhaps. Instead of letting my love poison 
my intellect and my intellectual reservations my love. Yet 
though I am rehabilitated, and ready once more to enter the 
world, everything in nature seems to have disappeared! I still 

70 



awake crying out: 'He has gone away forever. True lovers 
exist for the sake of love/ " 

"He gave a croaky sob and crawled out from between the 
sheets, looking ridiculous in his long woollen combinations, to 
hunt for a handkerchief in the chest of drawers. To the mirror 
he said: "The most tender, the most tragic of illusions is 
perhaps to believe that our actions can add or subtract from the 
total quantity of good and evil in the world." Then he shook 
his head gloomily and returned to his bed, settling the pillows 
at his back and adding: "And that fat brute Father Paul talks of 
acceptance! Acceptance of the world can only come from a full 
recognition of its measureless extents of good and evil; and to 
really inhabit it, explore it to the full uninhibited extent of this 
finite human understanding — that is all that is necessary in 
order to accept it. But what a task! One lies here with time 
passing and wonders about it. Every sort of time trickling 
through the hour-glass, 'time immemorial' and 'for the time 
being' and 'time out of mind'; the time of the poet, the 
philosopher, the pregnant woman, the calendar. . . . Even 'time 
is money' comes into the picture; and then, if you think that 
money is excrement for the Freudian, you understand that time 
must be also! Darley you have come at the right moment, for I 
am to be rehabilitated tomorrow by my friends. It was a touch- 
ing thought which Clea first had. The shame of having to put 
in a public appearance again after all my misdeeds has been 
weighing on me very heavily. How to face the city again — that 
is the problem. It is only in moments like this that you realise 
who your friends are. Tomorrow a little group is coming here to 
find me dressed, my hands less conspicuously bandaged, my 
new teeth in place. I shall of course wear dark glasses. Mount- 
olive, Amaril, Pombal and Clea, two on each arm. We will 
walk the whole length of Rue Fuad thus and take a lengthy 
public coffee on the pavement outside Pastroudi. Mountolive 
has booked the largest lunch table at the Mohammed Ali and 
proposes to offer me a lunch of twenty people to celebrate my 

71 



resurrection from the dead. It is a wonderful gesture of 
solidarity, and will certainly quell spiteful tongues and sneers. 
In the evening the Cervonis have asked me to dinner. With 
such lucky help I feel I may be able in the long run to repair 
my damaged confidence and that of my old patients. Is it not 
fine of them — and in the traditions of the city? I may live to 
smile again, if not to love — a fixed and glittering smile which 
only Pierre will gaze at with affection — the affection of the 
artificer for his handiwork." He raised his white boxing-gloves 
like a champion entering the ring and grimly saluted an 
imaginary crowd. Then he flopped back on his pillows once 
more and gazed at me with an air of benign sorrow. 

"Where has Clea gone?" I asked. 

"Nowhere. She was here yesterday afternoon asking for you." 

"Nessim said she had gone somewhere." 

"Perhaps to Cairo for the afternoon; where have you been?" 

"Out to Karm for the night." 

There was a long silence during which we eyed each other. 
7'here were clearly questions in his mind which he tactfully did 
not wish to inflict on me; and for my part there was little that I 
felt I could explain. I picked up an apple and took a bite 
from it. 

"And the writing?" he said after a long silence. 

"It has stopped. I don't seem to be able to carry it any 
further for the moment. I somehow can't match the truth to 
the illusions which are necessary to art without the gap show- 
ing — you know, like an unbasted seam. I was thinking of it at 
Karm, confronted again by Justine. Thinking how despite the 
factual falsities of the manuscript which I sent you the portrait 
was somehow poetically true — psychographicalLy if you like. 
But an artist who can't solder the elements together falls short 
somewhere. I'm on the wrong track." 

"I don't see why. In fact this very discovery should encourage 
rather than hamper you. I mean about the mutability of all 
truth. Each fact can have a thousand motivations, all equally 

72 



valid, and each fact a thousand faces. So many truths which 
have little to do with fact! Your duty is to hunt them down. 
At each moment of time all multiplicity waits at your elbow. 
Why, Darley, this should thrill you and give your writing the 
:urves of a pregnant woman." 

"On the contrary, it has faulted me. For the moment any- 
way. And now that I am back here in the real Alexandria from 
which I drew so many of my illustrations I don't feel the need 
for more writing — or at any rate writing which doesn't fulfil 
the difficult criteria I see lurking behind art. You remember 
Pursewarden writing: 'A novel should be an act of divination 
by entrails, not a careful record of a game of pat-ball on some 
vicarage lawn!' " 
Yes. 

"And so indeed it should. But now I am confronted once 
more with my models I am ashamed to have botched them up. 
If I start again it will be from another angle. But there is still 
so much I don't know, and presumably never will, about all of 
you. Capodistria, for example, where does he fit in?" 

"You sound as if you knew he was alive!" 

"Mnemjian told me so." 

"Yes. The mystery isn't a very complicated one. He was 
working for Nessim and compromised himself by a serious 
slip. It was necessary to clear out. Conveniently it happened at 
a time when he was all but bankrupt financially. The insurance 
money was most necessary! Nessim provided the setting and I 
provided the corpse. You know we get quite a lot of corpses of 
one sort or another. Paupers. People who donate their bodies, 
or actually sell them in advance for a fixed sum. The medical 
schools need them. It wasn't hard to obtain a private one, 
relatively fresh. I tried to hint at the truth to you once but you 
did not take my meaning. Anyway the thing's worked 
smoothly. Da Capo now lives in a handsomely converted Mar- 
tello tower, dividing his time between studying black magic 
and working on certain schemes of Nessim's about which I 

73 



know nothing. Indeed I see Nessim only rarely, and Justine not 
at all. Though guests are permitted by special police order they 
never invite anyone out to Karm. Justine telephones people 
from time to time for a chat, that is all. You have been privi- 
leged, Darley. They must have got you a permit. But I am 
relieved to see you cheerful and undesponding. You have made 
a step forward somewhere, haven't you?" 

"I don't know. I worry less." 

"But you will be happy this time, I feel it,* much has 
changed but much has remained the same. Mountolive tells me 
he has recommended you for a censorship post, and that you 
will probably live with Pombal, until you have had a chance to 
look round a bit." 

" Another mystery! I hardly know Mountolive. Why has he 
suddenly constituted himself my benefactor?" 

"I don't know, possibly because of Liza." 

"Pursewarden's sister?" 

"They are up at the summer legation for a few weeks. I 
gather you will be hearing from him, from them both." 

There was a tap at the door and a servant entered to tidy the 
flat; Balthazar propped himself up and issued his orders. I 
stood up to take my leave. 

"There is only one problem" he said "which occupies me. 
Shall I leave my hair as it is? I look about two hundred and 
seventy when it isn't dyed. But I think on the whole it would 
be better to leave it to symbolise my return from the dead 
with a vanity chastened by experience, eh? Yes, I shall leave it* 
I think I shall definitely leave it." 

"Toss a coin." 

"Perhaps I will. This evening I must get up for a couple of 
hours and practise walking about; extraordinary how weak one 
feels simply from lack of practice. After a fortnight in bed one 
loses the power of one's legs. And I mustn't fall down to- 
morrow or people will think I am drunk again and that would 
never do. As for you, you must find Clea." 

74 



"I'll go round to the studio and see if she is working." 

"I'm glad you are back." 

"In a strange way so am I." 

And in the desultory brilliant life of the open street it was 
hard not to feel like an ancient inhabitant of the city, returning 
from the other side of the grave to visit it. Where would I find 
Clea? 



75 



She was not at the flat, though her letter-box was empty, 
which suggested that she had already collected her mail 
and gone out to read it over a cafi crime, as had been her 
wont in the past. There was nobody at the studio either. 
It fitted in with my mood to try and track her down in one of 
the familiar cafes and so I dutifully walked down Rue Fuad at 
a leisurely pace towards Baudrot, the Cafe* Zoltan and the 
Coquin. But there was no sign of her. There was one elderly 
waiter at the Coquin who remembered me however, and he had 
seen her walking down Rue Fuad earlier in the morning with a 
portfolio. I continued my circuit, peering into the shop- 
windows, examining the stalls of second-hand books, until I 
reached the Select on the seafront. But she was not there. I 
turned back to the flat and found a note from her saying that 
she would not be able to make contact before the later after- 
noon, but that she would call there for me; it was annoying, for 
it meant that I should have to pass the greater part of the day 
alone, yet it was also useful, for it enabled me to visit Mnem- 
jian's redecorated emporium and indulge in a post-Pharaonic 
haircut and shave. (''The natron-bath" Pursewarden used to 
call it.) It also gave me time to unpack my belongings. 

But we met by chance, not design. I had gone out to buy 
some stationery, and had taken a short cut through the little 
square called Bab El Fedan. My heart heeled half-seas over for 
a moment, for she was sitting where once (that first day) 
Melissa had been sitting, gazing at a coffee cup with a wry 
reflective air of amusement, with her hands supporting her 
chin. The exact station in place and time where I had once 
found Melissa, and with such difficulty mustered enough 
courage at last to enter the place and speak to her. It gave me a 

76 



strange sense of unreality to repeat this forgotten action at such 
a great remove of time, like unlocking a door which had 
remained closed and bolted for a generation. Yet it was in truth 
Clea and not Melissa, and her blonde head was bent with an 
air of childish concentration over her coffee cup. She was in the 
act of shaking the dregs three times and emptying them into 
the saucer to study them as they dried into the contours from 
which fortune-tellers "skry" — a familiar gesture. 

"So you haven't changed. Still telling fortunes.' ' 

"Darley." She sprang up with a cry of pleasure and we 
embraced warmly. It was with a queer interior shock, almost 
like a new recognition, that I felt her warm laughing mouth on 
mine, her hands upon my shoulders. As though somewhere a 
window had been smashed, and the fresh air allowed to pour 
into a long-sealed room. We stood thus embracing and smiling 
for a long moment. "You startled me! I was just coming on to 
the flat to find you." 

"You've had me chasing my tail all day." 

"I had work to do. But Darley, how you've changed! You 
don't stoop any more. And your spectacles. ..." 

"I broke them by accident ages ago, and then found I didn't 
really need them." 

"I'm delighted for you. Bravo! Tell me, do you notice my 
wrinkles? I'm getting some I fear. Have I changed very much 
would you say?" 

She was more beautiful than I could remember her to have 
been, slimmer, and with a subtle range of new gestures and 
expressions suggesting a new and troubling maturity. 

"You've grown a new laugh." 

"Have I?" 

"Yes. It's deeper and more melodious. But I must not 
flatter you! A nightingale's laugh — if they do laugh." 

Don't make me self-conscious because I so much want to 
laugh with you. You'll turn it into a croak." 

"Clea, why didn't you come and meet me?" 

77 



She wrinkled up her nose for a moment, and putting her 
hand on my arm, bent her head once more to the coffee grounds 
which were drying fast into little whorls and curves like sand- 
dunes. " Light me a cigarette" she said pleadingly. 
"Nessim said you turned tail at the last moment/' 
"Yes, I did, my dear." 
"Why?" 

"I suddenly felt it might be inopportune. It might have been 
a complication somehow. You had old accounts to render, old 
scores to settle, new relationships to explore. I really felt 
powerless to do anything about you until . . . well, until you 
had seen Justine. I don't know why. Yes, I do though. I wasn't 
sure that the cycle would really change, I didn't know how 
much you had or hadn't changed yourself. You are such a 
bloody correspondent I hadn't any way of judging about your 
inside state of mind. Such a long time since you wrote, isn't it? 
And then the child and all that. After all, people sometimes get 
stuck like an old disc and can't move out of a groove. That 
might have been your fate with Justine. So it wasn't for me to 
intrude, since my side of you. . . . Do you see? I had to give 
you air." 

'And supposing I have stuck like some old disc?" 

'No it hasn't turned out like that." 

'How can you tell?" 

'From your face, Darley. I could tell in a flash!" 

'I don't know quite how to explain. ..." 

'You don't need to" her voice curved upwards with elation 
and her bright eyes smiled. "We have such totally different 
claims upon each other. We are free toforgetl You men are the 
strangest creatures. Listen, I have arranged this first day to- 
gether like a tableau, like a charade. Come first and see the 
queer immortality one of us has gained. Will you put yourself 
in my hands? I have been so looking forward to acting as drago- 
man on . . . but no, I won't tell you. Just let me pay for this 
coffee." 

78 



"What does your fortune say in the grounds?" 

"Chance meetings!" 

"I think you invent." 

The afternoon had been overcast and dusk fell early. 
Already the sunset violets had begun to tamper with the per- 
spectives of the streets along the seafront. We took an old 
horse-drawn gharry which was standing forlornly in a taxi rank 
by Ramleh Station. The ancient jarvey with his badly cica- 
triced face asked hopefully if we wished for a "carriage of 
love" or an "ordinary carriage", and Clea, giggling, selected 
the latter variety of the same carriage as being cheaper. "O son 
of truth!" she said. "What woman would take a lusty husband 
in such a thing when she has a good bed at home which costs 
nothing." 

"Merciful is God" said the old man with sublime resignation. 

So we set off down the white curving Esplanade with its 
fluttering awnings, the quiet sea spreading away to the right of 
us to a blank horizon. In the past we had so often come this way 
to visit the old pirate in his shabby rooms in Tatwig Street. 

"Clea, where the devil are we going?" 

"Wait and see." 

I could see him so clearly, the old man. I wondered for a 
moment if his shabby ghost still wandered about those dismal 
rooms, whistling to the green parrot and reciting: "Taise^vous, 
petit habouin." I felt Clea's arm squeeze mine as we sheered off 
left and entered the smoking ant-heap of the Arab town, the 
streets choked with smoke from the burning refuse-heaps, or 
richly spiced with cooking meat and whiffs of baking bread 
from the bakeries. 

"Why on earth are you taking me to Scobie's rooms?" I said 
again as we started to clip-clop down the length of the familiar 
street. Her eyes shone with a mischievous delight as putting 
her lips to my ear she whispered: "Patience. You shall see." 

It was the same house all right. We entered the tall gloomy 
archway as we had so often in the past. In the deepening dusk 

79 



it looked like some old faded daguerrotype, the little court- 
yard, and I could see that it had been much enlarged. Several 
supporting walls of neighbouring tenements had been razed or 
had fallen down and increased its mean size by about two 
hundred square feet. It was just a shattered and pock-marked 
no-man's-land of red earth littered with refuse. In one corner 
stood a small shrine which I did not remember having re- 
marked before. It was surrounded by a huge ugly modern 
grille of steel. It boasted a small white dome and a withered 
tree, both very much the worse for wear. I recognised in it one 
of the many Maquams with which Egypt is studded, spots made 
sacred by the death of a hermit or holy man and where the 
faithful repair to pray or solicit his help by leaving ex-votos. 
This little shrine looked as so many do, utterly shabby and 
forlorn, as if its existence had been overlooked and forgotten 
for centuries. I stood looking around me, and heard Clea's clear 
voice call: "Ya Abdul!' ' There was a note in it which suggested 
suppressed amusement but I could not for the life of me tell 
why. A man advanced towards us through the shadows peering. 
"He is almost blind. I doubt if he'll recognise you." 

"But who is it?" I said, almost with exasperation at all this 
mystery. "Scobie's Abdul" she whispered briefly and turned 
away to say: "Abdul, have you the key of the Maquam of El 
Scob?" 

He greeted her in recognition making elaborate passes over 
his breast, and produced a clutch of tall keys saying in a deep 
voice: "At once O lady" rattling the keys together as all guar- 
dians of shrines must do to scare the djinns which hang about 
the entrances to holy places. 

"Abdul!" I exclaimed with amazement in a whisper. "But 
he was a youth." It was quite impossible to identify him with 
this crooked and hunched anatomy with its stooping centenar- 
ian's gait and cracked voice. "Come" said Clea hurriedly, 
"explanations later. Just come and look at the shrine." Still 
bemused I followed in the guardian's footsteps. After a very 

80 



thorough rattling and banging to scare the djinns he unlocked 
the rusty portals and led the way inside. It was suffocatingly 
hot in that little airless tomb. A single wick somewhere in a 
recess had been lighted and gave a wan and trembling yellow 
light. In the centre lay what I presumed must be the tomb of 
the saint. It was covered with a green cloth with an elaborate 
design in gold. This Abdul reverently removed for my inspec- 
tion, revealing an object under it which was so surprising that 
I uttered an involuntary exclamation. It was a galvanised iron 
bath-tub on one leg of which was engraved in high relief the 
words: ' 'The Dinky Tub' Crabbe's. Luton." It had been 
filled with clean sand and its four hideous crocodile-feet 
heavily painted with the customary anti-djinn blue colour. It 
was an astonishing object of reverence to stumble upon in such 
surroundings, and it was with a mixture of amusement and 
dismay that I heard the now completely unrecognisable Abdul, 
who was the object's janitor, muttering the conventional 
prayers in the name of El Scob, touching as he did so the 
ex-votos which hung down from every corner of the wall like 
little white tassels. These were, of course, the slips of cloth 
which women tear from their underclothes and hang up as 
offerings to a saint who, they believe, will cure sterility and 
enable them to conceive. The devil! Here was old Scobie's 
bath-tub apparently being invoked to confer fertility upon the 
childless— and with success, too, if one could judge by the 
great number of the offerings. 

"El Scob was a holy one?" I said in my halting Arabic. 

The tired, crooked bundle of humanity with its head en- 
circled in a tattered shawl nodded and bowed as he croaked: 
"From far away in Syria he came. Here he found his rest. His 
name enlightens the just. He was a student of harmlessness!" 

I felt as if I were dreaming. I could almost hear Scobie's 
voice say: "Yes, it's a flourishing little shrine as shrines go. 
Mind you, I don't make a fortune, but I do give service!" The 
laughter began to pile up inside me as I felt the trigger of 

81 



Clea's fingers on my elbow. We exchanged delighted squeezes 
as we retired from that fuggy little hole into the dusky court- 
yard, while Abdul reverently replaced the cloth over the bath- 
tub, attended to the oil wick, and then joined us. Carefully he 
locked the iron grille, and accepting a tip from Clea with many 
hoarse gratitudes, shuffled away into the shadows, leaving us 
to sit down upon a heap of tumbled masonry. 

"I didn't come right in" she said. "I was afraid we'd start 
laughing and didn't want to risk upsetting Abdul." 

"Clea! Scobie's bath~tubl" 

"I know." 

"How the devil did this happen?" 

Clea's soft laughter! 

"You must tell me." 

"It is a wonderful story. Balthazar unearthed it. Scobie is 
now officially El Yacoub. At least that is how the shrine is 
registered on the Coptic Church's books. But as you have just 
heard he is really El Scob! You know how these saints' 
Maquatns get forgotten, overlooked. They die t and in time 
people completely forget who the original saint was; sometimes 
a sand-dune buries the shrine. But they also spring alive again. 
Suddenly one day an epileptic is cured there, or a prophecy is 
given by the shrine to some mad woman — and presto! the saint 
wakes up, revives. Well, all the time our old pirate was living 
in this house El Yacoub was there, at the end of the garden, 
though nobody knew it. He had been bricked in, surrounded 
by haphazard walls — you know how crazily they build here. He 
was utterly forgotten. Meanwhile Scobie, after his death, had 
become a figure of affectionate memory in the neighbourhood. 
Tales began to circulate about his great gifts. He was clever at 
magic potions (like Mock Whisky?). A cult began to blossom 
around him. They said he was a necromancer. Gamblers swore 
by his name. 'El Scob spit on this card' became quite a proverb 
in the quarter. They also said that he had been able to change 
himself into a woman at will (!) and by sleeping with impotent 

82 



men regenerate their forces. He could also make the barren 
conceive. Some women even called their children after him. 
Well, in a little while he had already joined the legendary of 
Alexandrian saints, but of course he had no actual shrine — 
because everyone knew with one half of his mind that Father 
Paul had stolen his body, wrapped it in a flag, and buried it in 
the Catholic cemetery. They knew because many of them had 
been there for the service and much enjoyed the dreadful music 
of the police band of which I believe Scobie had once been a 
member. I often wonder whether he played any instrument and 
if so what. A slide trombone? Anyway, it was during this time, 
while his sainthood was only, so to speak, awaiting a Sign, a 
Portent, a Confirmation, that that wall obligingly fell down 
and revealed the (perhaps indignant?) Yacoub. Yes, but there 
was no tomb in the shrine. Even the Coptic Church which has 
at last reluctantly taken Yacoub on their books knows nothing 
of him except that he came from Syria. They are not even sure 
whether he was a Moslem or not! He sounds distinctly Jewish 
to me. However they diligently questioned the oldest inhabi- 
tants of the quarter and at least established his name. But 
nothing more. And so one fine day the neighbourhood found 
that it had an empty shrine free for Scobie. He must have a 
local habitation to match the power of his name. A spontaneous 
festival broke out at which his bath-tub which had been 
responsible for so many deaths (great is Allah!) was solemnly 
enshrined and consecrated after being carefully filled with holy 
sand from the Jordan. Officially the Copts could not concede 
Scob and insisted on sticking to Yacoub for official purposes; 
but Scob he remained to the faithful. It might have been some- 
thing of a dilemma, but being magnificent diplomatists, the 
clergy turned a blind eye to El Scob's reincarnation; they 
behave as if they thought it was really El Yacoub in a local 
pronunciation. So everyone's face is saved. They have, in fact, 
even — and here is that marvellous tolerance which exists no- 
where else on earth — formally registered Scobie's birthday, I 

83 



suppose because they do not know Yacoub's. Do you know 
that he is even to have a yearly mulid in his honour on St. 
George's Day? Abdul must have remembered his birthday be- 
cause Scobie always hung up from each corner of his bed a 
string of coloured flags-of-all-nations which he borrowed from 
the newsagent. And he used to get rather drunk, you told me 
once, and sing sea-chanties and recite 'The Old Red Duster* 
until the tears flowed!" 

"What a marvellous immortality to enjoy/ ' 

"How happy the old pirate must be." 

"How happy! To be the patron saint of his own quartierl O 
Darley I knew you'd enjoy it. I often come here at this time in 
the dusk and sit on a stone and laugh inwardly, rejoicing for 
the old man." 

So we sat together for a long time as the shadows grew up 
around the shrine, quietly laughing and talking as people 
should at the shrine of a saint! Reviving the memory of the old 
pirate with the glass eye whose shade still walked about those 
mouldering rooms on the second floor. Vaguely glimmered the 
lights of Tatwig Street. They shone, not with their old accus- 
tomed brilliance, but darkly — for the whole harbour quarter 
had been placed under blackout and one sector of it included 
the famous street. My thoughts were wandering. 

"And Abdul" I said suddenly. "What of him?" 

"Yes, I promised to tell you; Scobie set him up in a barber's 
shop, you remember. Well, he was warned for not keeping his 
razors clean, and for spreading syphilis. He didn't heed the 
warnings perhaps because he believed that Scobie would never 
report him officially. But the old man did, with terrible results. 
Abdul was nearly beaten to death by the police, lost an eye. 
Amaril spent nearly a year trying to tidy him up. Then he got 
some wasting disease on top of it and had to abandon his shop. 
Poor man. But I'm not sure that he isn't the appropriate 
guardian for the shrine of his master." 

"El Scob! Poor Abdul!" 

84 



"But now he has taken consolation in religion and does some 
mild preaching and reciting of the Suras as well as this job. Do 
you know I believe that he has forgotten the real Scobie. I 
asked him one evening if he remembered the old gentleman on 
the upper floor and he looked at me vaguely and muttered 
something; as if he were reaching far back in his memory for 
something too remote to grasp. The real Scobie had dis- 
appeared just like Yacoub, and El Scob had taken his place." 

"I feel rather as one of the Apostles must have — I mean to 
be in on the birth of a saint, a legend; think, we actually knew 
the real El Scob! We heard his voice. . . ." 

To my delight Clea now began to mimic the old man quite 
admirably, copying the desultory scattered manner of his con- 
versation to the life; perhaps she was only repeating the words 
from memory? 

"Yes, mind you, on Su George's Day I always get a bit 
carried away for England's sake as well as my own. Always 
have a sip or two of the blushful, as Toby would say, even 
bubbly if it comes my way. But, bless you, I'm no horse- 
drawn conveyance — always stay on my two pins. It's the cup 
that cheers and not in . . . in . . . inebriates for me. Another of 
Toby's expressions. He was full of literary illustrations. As 
well he might be — for why? Bercorse he was never without a 
book under his arm. In the Navy he was considered quite queer, 
and several times had rows. 'What yer got there?' they used to 
shout, and Toby who could be pert at times used to huff up 
and answer quite spontaneous. 'What d'yer think, Puffy? Why 
me marriages lines of course.' But it was always some heavy 
book which made my head swim though I love reading. One 
year it was Stringbag's Plays, a Swedish author as I understand 
it. Another year it was Goitre's 'Frowst'. Toby said it was a 
liberal education. My education just wasn't up to his. The 
school of life, as you might say. But then my mum and dad 
were killed off early on and we were left, three perishing little 
orphans. They had destined us for high things, my father had; 

85 



one for the church, one for the army, one for the navy. Quite 
shortly after this my two brothers were run over by the Prince 
Regent's private train near Sidcup. That was the end of them. 
But it was in all the papers and the Prince sent a wreath. But 
there I was left quite alone. I had to make my own way without 
influence — otherwise I should have been an Admiral I expect 
by now. 

The fidelity of her rendering was absolutely impeccable. The 
little old man stepped straight out of his tomb and began to 
stalk about in front of us with his lopsided walk, now toying 
with his telescope on the cake-stand, now opening and shutting 
his battered Bible, or getting down on one creaking knee to 
blow up his fire with the tiny pair of bellows. His birthday! I 
recalled finding him one birthday evening rather the worse for 
brandy, but dancing around completely naked to music of his 
own manufacture on a comb and paper. 

Recalling this celebration of his Name Day I began, as it 
were, to mimic him back to Clea, in order to hear once more 
this thrilling new laugh she had acquired. "O! it's you, Darley! 
You gave me quite a turn with your knock. Come in, I'm just 
having a bit of a dance round in my tou ton to recall old times. 
It's my birthday, yes. I always dwell a bit on the past. In my 
youth I was a proper spark, I don't mind admitting. I was a 
real dab at the Velouta. Want to watch me? Don't laugh, just 
hercotst I'm in puris. Sit on the chair over there and watch. 
Now, advance, take your partners, shimmy, bow, reverse! It 
looks easy but it isn't. The smoothness is deceptive. I could do 
them all once, my boy, Lancers, Caledonians, Circassian Circle. 
Never seen a demi-chaine Anglais, I suppose? Before your time I 
think. Mind you, I loved dancing, and for years I kept up to 
date. I got up as far as the Hootchi-Kootchi — have you ever 
seen that? Yes, the haitch is haspirated as in 'otel. It's got some 
fetching little movements they call oriental allurements. Un- 
dulations, like. You take off one veil after another until all is 
revealed. The suspense is terrific, but you have to waggle as you 

86 



glide, see?" Here he took up a posture of quite preposterous 
oriental allurement and began to revolve slowly, wagging his 
behind and humming a suitable air which quite faithfully 
copied the lag and fall of Arab quartertones. Round and round 
the room he went until he began to feel dizzy and flopped back 
triumphantly on his bed, chuckling and nodding with self- 
approval and self-congratulation, and reaching out for a swig of 
arak, the manufacture of which was also among his secrets. He 
must have found the recipe in the pages of Postlethwaite's 
Vade Mecum For Travellers in Foreign Lands, a book which 
he kept under lock and key in his trunk and by which he 
absolutely swore. It contained, he said, everything that a man 
in Robinson Crusoe's position ought to know — even how to 
make fire by rubbing sticks together; it was a mine of marvel- 
lous information. ("To achieve Bombay arrack dissolve two 
scruples of flowers of benjamin in a quart of good rum and it 
will impart to the spirit the fragrance of arrack.") That was 
the sort of thing. "Yes" he would add gravely, "old Postle- 
thwaite can't be bettered. There's something in him for every 
sort of mind and every sort of situation. He's a genius I might 
say. 

Only once had Postlethwaite failed to live up to his reputa- 
tion, and that was when Toby said that there was a fortune to 
be made in Spanish Fly if only Scobie could secure a large 
quantity of it for export. "But the perisher didn't explain what 
it was or how, and it was the only time Postlethwaite had me 
beat. D'you know what he says about it, under Cantharides? 
I found it so mysterious I memorised the passage to repeat to 
Toby when next he came through. Old Postle says this: 'Can- 
tharides when used internally are diuretic and stimulant; when 
applied externally they are epispastic and rubefacient.' Now 
what the devil can he mean, eh? And how does this fit in with 
Toby's idea of a flourishing trade in the things? Sort of worms, 
they must be. I asked Abdul but I don't know the Arabic 
word." 

87 



Refreshed by the interlude he once more advanced to the 
mirror to admire his wrinkled old tortoise-frame. A sudden 
thought cast a gloom over his countenance. He pointed at a 
portion of his own wrinkled anatomy and said: "And to think 
that that is what old Postlethwaite describes as 'merely erectile 
tissue*. Why the merely, I always ask myself. Sometimes these 
medical men are a puzzle in their language. Just a sprig of 
erectile tissue indeed! And think of all the trouble it causes. 
Ah me; if you'd seen what I've seen you wouldn't have half the 
nervous energy I've got today." 

And so the saint prolonged his birthday celebrations by 
putting on pyjamas and indulging in a short song-cycle which 
included many old favourites and one curious little ditty which 
he only sang on birthdays. It was called "The Cruel Cruel 
Skipper" and had a chorus which ended: 

So he was an old sky plant, turn turn. 
So he was an old meat loaf, turn turn, 
So he was an old cantankeroo. 

And now, having virtually exhausted his legs by dancing and 
his singing-voice with song, there remained a few brief conun- 
drums which he enunciated to the ceiling, his arms behind his 
head. 

"Where did King Charles' executioner dine, and what did 
he order?" 

'I don't know." 
'Give in?" 
: 'Yes." 

'Well he took a chop at the King's Head." 
Delighted clucks and chuckles! 

'When may a gentleman's property be described as feathers?" 
'I don't know." 
'Give in?" 
'Yes." 

When his estates are all entails (hen-tails, see?)" 

88 



The voice gradually fading, the clock running down, the eyes 
closing, the chuckles trailing away languorously into sleep. 
And it was thus that the saint slept at last, with his mouth 
open, upon St. George's Day. 

So we walked back, arm in arm, through the shadowy arch- 
way, laughing the compassionate laughter which the old man's 
image deserved' — laughter which in a way regilded the ikon, 
refuelled the lamps about the shrine. Our footfalls hardly 
echoed on the streets' floor of tamped soil. The partial black- 
out of the area had cut off the electric light which so brilliantly 
illuminated it under normal conditions, and had been replaced 
by the oil lamps which flickered wanly everywhere, so that we 
walked in a dark forest by glow-worm light which made more 
than ever mysterious the voices and the activities in the build- 
ings around us. And at the end of the street, where the rickety 
gharry stood awaiting us, came the stirring cool breath of the 
night-sea which would gradually infiltrate the town and dis- 
perse the heavy breathless damps from the lake. We climbed 
aboard, the evening settling itself about us cool as the veined 
leaves of a fig. 

"And now I must dine you, Clea, to celebrate the new 
laughter!" 

"No. I haven't finished yet. There is another tableau I want 
you to see, of a different kind. You see, Darley, I wanted to 
sort of recompose the city for you so that you could walk back 
into the painting from another angle and feel quite at home — 
though that is hardly the word for a city of exiles, is it? Any- 
how ..." And leaning forward (I felt her breath on my cheek) 
she said to the jarvey, "Take us to the Auberge Bleue!" 

"More mysteries." 

"No. Tonight the Virtuous Semira makes her first appear- 
ance on the public stage. It is rather like a vernissage for me — 
you know, don't you, that Amaril and I are the authors of her 
lovely nose? It has been a tremendous adventure, these long 
months; and she has been very patient and brave under the 

8 9 



bandages and grafts. Now it's complete. Yesterday they were 
married. Tonight all Alexandria will be there to see her. We 
shouldn't absent ourselves, should we? It characterises some- 
thing which is all too rare in the city and which you, as an 
earnest student of the matter, will appreciate. Il s'agit de 
Romantic Love with capital letters. My share in it has been a 
large one so let me be a bit boastful; I have been part duenna, 
part nurse, part artist, all for the good Amaril's sake. You see, 
she isn't very clever, Semira, and I have had to spend hours 
with her sort of preparing her for the world. Also brushing up 
her reading and writing. In short, trying to educate her a bit. 
It is curious in a way that Amaril does not regard this huge gap 
in their different educations as an obstacle. He loves her the 
more for it. He says: 'I know she is rather simple-minded. 
That is what makes her so exquisite.' 

"This is the purest flower of romantic logic, no? And he has 
gone about her rehabilitation with immense inventiveness. I 
should have thought it somewhat dangerous to play at Pyg- 
malion, but only now I begin to understand the power of the 
image. Do you know, for example, what he has devised for her 
in the way of a profession, a skill of her own? It shows bril- 
liance. She would be too simple-minded to undertake anything 
very specialised so he has trained her, with my help, to be a 
doll's surgeon. His wedding-present to her is a smart little 
surgery for children's dolls which has already become tremen- 
dously fashionable though it won't officially open until they 
come back from the honeymoon. But this new job Semira has 
really grasped with both hands. For months we have been 
cutting up and repairing dolls together in preparation for this! 
No medical student could have studied harder. 'It is the only 
way' says Amaril 'to hold a really stupid woman you adore. 
Give her something of her own to do.' " 

So we swayed down the long curving Corniche and back into 
the lighted area of the city where the blue street-lamps came 
up one by one to peer into the gharry at us as we talked; and 

90 



all at once it seemed that past and present had joined again 
without any divisions in it, and that all my memories and 
impressions had ordered themselves into one complete pattern 
whose metaphor was always the shining city of the disinherited 
— a city now trying softly to spread the sticky prismatic wings 
of a new-born dragon-fly on the night. Romantic Love! 
Pursewarden used to call it "The Comic Demon' \ 

The Auberge had not changed at all. It remained a lasting 
part of the furniture of my dreams, and here (like faces in a 
dream) were the Alexandrians themselves seated at flower- 
decked tables while a band softly punctuated their idleness with 
the Blues. The cries of welcome recalled vanished generosities 
of the old city. Athena Trasha with the silver crickets in her 
ears, droning Pierre Balbz who drank opium because it made 
the "bones blossom", the stately Cervonis and the rash dex- 
terous Martinengo girls, they were all there. All save Nessim 
and Justine. Even the good Pombal was there in full evening- 
dress so firmly ironed and starched as to give him the air of a 
monumental relief executed for the tomb of Francois Premier. 
With him was Fosca, warm and dark of colouring, whom I had 
not met before. They sat with their knuckles touching in a 
curious stiff rapture. Pombal was perched quite upright, atten- 
tive as a rabbit, as he gazed into her eyes — the eyes of this 
handsome young matron. He looked absurd. ("She calls him 
'Georges-Gaston' which for some reason quite delights him" 
said Clea.) 

So we made our slow way from table to table, greeting old 
friends as we had often done in the past until we came to the 
little alcove table with its scarlet celluloid reservation card 
marked in Clea's name, where to my surprise Zoltan the waiter 
materialised out of nothing to shake my hand with warmth. 
He was now the resplendent maitre d'hdtel and was in full fig, 
his hair cut en hrosse. It seemed also that he was fully in the 
secret for he remarked under his breath to Clea that everything 
had been prepared in complete secrecy, and even went so far 

9 1 



as to wink. "I have Anselm outside watching. As soon as he 
sees Dr. Amaril's car he will signal. Then the music will play 
— Madame Trasha has asked for the old 'Blue Danube'/ ' He 
clasped his hands together in ecstasy and swallowed like a toad. 
"O what a good idea of Athena's. Bravo!" cried Clea. It was 
indeed a gesture of affection for Amaril was the best Viennese 
waltzer in Alexandria, and though not a vain man was always 
absurdly delighted by his own prowess as a dancer. It could not 
fail to please him. 

Neither had we long to wait; anticipation and suspense had 
hardly had time to become wearying when the band, which 
had been softly playing with one ear cocked for the sound of a 
car, so to speak, fell silent. Anselm appeared at the corner of 
the vestibule waving his napkin. They were coming! The 
musicians struck out one long quivering arpeggio such as nor- 
mally brings a tzigane melody to a close, and then, as the 
beautiful figure of Semira appeared among the palms, they 
swung softly and gravely into the waltz measure of 'The Blue 
Danube*. I was suddenly quite touched to see the shy way that 
Semira hesitated on the threshold of that crowded ballroom; 
despite the magnificence of her dress and grooming those 
watching eyes intimidated her, made her lose her self-posses- 
sion. She hovered with a soft indecision which reminded me 
of the way a sailing boat hangs pouting when the painter is 
loosed, the jib shaken out — as if slowly meditating for a long 
moment before she turns, with an almost audible sigh, to take 
the wind upon her cheek. But in this moment of charming 
irresolution Amaril came up behind her and took her arm. He 
himself looked, I thought, rather white and nervous despite the 
customary foppishness of his attire. Caught like this, in a 
moment of almost panic, he looked indeed absurdly young. 
Then he registered the waltz and stammered something to her 
with trembling lips, at the same time leading her down 
gravely among the tables to the edge of the floor where with a 
slow and perfectly turned movement they began to dance. 

9 2 



With the first full figure of the waltz the confidence poured 
into them both — one could almost see it happening. They 
calmed, became still as leaves, and Semira closed her eyes while 
Amaril recovered his usual gay, self-confident smile. And 
everywhere the soft clapping welled up around them from 
every corner of the ballroom. Even the waiters seemed moved 
and the good Zoltan groped for a handkerchief, for Ameril was 
much-beloved. 

Clea too looked quite shaken with emotion. "O quick, let's 
have a drink" she said "for I've a huge lump in my throat and 
if I cry my make-up will run/' 

The batteries of champagne-bottles opened up from every 
corner of the ballroom now, and the floor filled with waltzers, 
the lights changed colour. Now blue now red now green I saw 
the smiling face of Clea over the edge of her champagne glass 
turned towards me with an expression of happy mockery. "Do 
you mind if I get a little tipsy tonight to celebrate her successful 
nose? I think we can drink to their future without reserve for 
they will never leave each other; they are drunk with the 
knightly love one reads about in the Arthurian legends — 
knight and rescued lady. And pretty soon there will be children 
all bearing my lovely nose." 

"Of that you can't be sure." 

"Well, let me believe it." 

"Let's dance a while." 

And so we joined the thronging dancers in the great circle 
which blazed with spinning prismatic light hearing the soft 
drum-beats punctuate our blood, moving to the slow grave 
rhythms like the great wreaths of coloured seaweed swinging in 
some under-water lagoon, one with the dancers and with each 
other. 

We did not stay late. As we came out into the cold damp air 
she shivered and half-fell against me, catching my arm. 

"What is it?" 

"I felt faint all of a sudden. It's passed." 

93 



So back into the city along the windless seafront, drugged 
by the clop of the horse's hooves on the macadam, the jingle of 
harness, the smell of straw, and the dying strains of music 
which flowed out of the ballroom and dwindled away among 
the stars. We paid off the cab at the Cecil and walked up the 
winding deserted street towards her flat arm-in-arm, hearing 
our own slow steps magnified by the silence. In a bookshop 
window there were a few novels, one by Pursewarden. We 
stopped for a moment to peer into the darkened shop and then 
resumed our leisurely way to the flat. "You'll come in for a 
moment?" she said. 

Here, too, the air of celebration was apparent, in the 
flowers and the small supper-table on which stood a champagne- 
bucket. "I did not know we'd stay to dine at the Auberge, and 
prepared to feed you here if necessary" said Clea, dipping her 
fingers in the ice-water; she sighed with relief. "At least we 
can have a night-cap together." 

Here at least there was nothing to disorient or disfigure 
memory, for everything was exactly as I remembered it; I had 
stepped back into this beloved room as one might step into 
some favourite painting. Here it all was, the crowded book- 
shelves, heavy drawing-boards, small cottage piano, and the 
corner with the tennis racquet and fencing foils; on the writing 
desk, with its disorderly jumble of letters, drawings and bills, 
stood the candlesticks which she was now in the act of lighting. 
A bundle of paintings stood against the wall. I turned one or 
two round and stared at them curiously. 

"My God! You've gone abstract, Clea." 

"I know! Balthazar hates them. It's just a phase I expect, so 
don't regard it as irrevocable or final. It's a different way of 
mobilising one's feelings about paint. Do you loathe them?" 

"No, they are stronger I think." 

"Hum. Candle-light flatters them with false chiaroscuro." 

"Perhaps." 

"Come, sit down; I've poured us a drink." 

94 



As if by common consent we sat facing each other on the 
carpet as we had so often done in the past, cross-legged like 
"Armenian tailors", as she had once remarked. We toasted 
each other in the rosy light of the scarlet candles which stood 
unwinking in the still air defining with their ghostly radiance 
the smiling mouth and candid features of Clea. Here, too, at 
last, on this memorable spot on the faded carpet, we embraced 
each other with — how to say it? — a momentous smiling calm, 
as if the cup of language had silently overflowed into these 
eloquent kisses which replaced words like the rewards of 
silence itself, perfecting thought and gesture. They were like 
soft cloud-formations which had distilled themselves out of a 
novel innocence, the veritable ache of desirelessness. My steps 
had led me back again, I realised, remembering the night so 
long ago when we had slept dreamlessly in each other's arms, 
to the locked door which had once refused me admission to her. 
Led me back once more to that point in time, that threshold, 
behind which the shade of Clea moved, smiling and irrespon- 
sible as a flower, after a huge arid detour in a desert of my own 
imaginings. I had not known then how to find the key to that 
door. Now of its own accord it was slowly opening. Whereas 
the other door which had once given me access to Justine had 
now locked irrevocably. Did not Pursewarden say something 
once about "sliding-panels"? But he was talking of books, not 
of the human heart. In her face now there was neither guile nor 
premeditation mirrored, but only a sort of magnificent mis- 
chief which had captured the fine eyes, expressed itself in the 
firm and thoughtful way she drew my hands up inside her 
sleeves to offer herself to their embrace with the uxorious ges- 
ture of a woman offering her body to some priceless cloak. Or 
else to catch my hand, place it upon her heart and whisper 
'Feel! It has stopped beating!" So we lingered, so we might 
have stayed, like rapt figures in some forgotten painting, un- 
hurriedly savouring the happiness given to those who set out to 
enjoy each other without reservations or self-contempts, with- 

95 



r. 



VI 



out the premeditated costumes of selfishness — the invented 
limitations of human love: but that suddenly the dark air of the 
night outside grew darker, swelled up with the ghastly tumes- 
cence of a sound which, like the frantic wing-beats of some 
prehistoric bird, swallowed the whole room, the candles, the 
figures. She shivered at the first terrible howl of the sirens but 
did not move; and all around us the city stirred to life like an 
ants' nest. Those streets which had been so dark and silent now 
began to echo with the sound of feet as people made their way 
to the air-raid shelters, rustling like a gust of dry autumn 
leaves whirled by the wind. Snatches of sleepy conversation, 
screams, laughter, rose to the silent window of the little room. 
The street had filled as suddenly as a dry river-bed when the 
spring rains fall. 

"Clea, you should shelter.' ' 

But she only pressed closer, shaking her head like someone 
drugged with sleep, or perhaps by the soft explosion of kisses 
which burst like bubbles of oxygen in the patient blood. I 
shook her softly, and she whispered: "I am too fastidious to 
die with a lot of people in a shelter like an old rats' nest. Let 
us go to bed together and ignore the loutish reality of the 
world." 

So it was that love-making itself became a kind of challenge 
to the whirlwind outside which beat and pounded like a 
thunder-storm of guns and sirens, igniting the pale skies of the 
city with the magnificence of its lightning- flashes. And kisses 
themselves became charged with the deliberate affirmation 
which can come only from the foreknowledge and presence of 
death. It would have been good to die at any moment then, for 
love and death had somewhere joined hands. It was an expres- 
sion of her pride, too, to sleep there in the crook of my arm like 
a wild bird exhausted by its struggles with a limed twig, for all 
the world as if it were an ordinary summer night of peace. And 
lying awake at her side, listening to the infernal racket of gun- 
fire and watching the stabbing and jumping of light behind the 

9 6 



blinds I remembered how once in the remote past she had 
reminded me of the limitations which love illuminated in us: 
saying something about its capacity being limited to an iron 
ration for each soul and adding gravely: "The love you feel for 
Melissa, the same love, is trying to work itself out through 
Justine." Would I, by extension, find this to be true also of 
Clea? I did not like to think so — for these fresh and spontaneous 
embraces were as pristine as invention, and not like ill-drawn 
copies of past actions. They were the very improvisations of the 
heart itself — or so I told myself as I lay there trying so hard to 
recapture the elements of the feelings I had once woven around 
those other faces. Yes, improvisations upon reality itself, and 
for once devoid of the bitter impulses of the will. We had 
sailed into this calm water completely without premeditation, 
all canvas crowded on; and for the first time it felt natural to be 
where I was, drifting into sleep with her calm body lying 
beside me. Even the long rolling cannonades which shook the 
houses so, even the hail of shards which swept the streets, could 
not disturb the dreaming silence we harvested together. And 
when we awoke to find everything silent once more she lit a 
single candle and we lay by its flickering light, looking at each 
other, and talking in whispers. 

"I am always so bad the first time, why is it?" 

"So am I." 

"Are you afraid of me?" 

"No. Nor of myself." 

"Did you ever imagine this?" 

"We must both have done. Otherwise it would not have 
happened." 

"Hush! Listen." 

Rain was now falling in sheets as it so often did before dawn 
in Alexandria, chilling the air, washing down the stiffly clicking 
leaves of the palms in the Municipal Gardens, washing the iron 
grilles of the banks and the pavements. In the Arab town the 
earthen streets would be smelling like a freshly dug graveyard. 

97 



The flower-sellers would be putting out their stocks to catch 
the freshness. I remembered their cry of "Carnations, sweet as 
the breath of a girl!" From the harbour the smells of tar, fish 
and briny nets flowing up along the deserted streets to meet the 
scentless pools of desert air which would later, with the first 
sunlight, enter the town from the east and dry its damp 
facades. Somewhere, briefly, the hushing of the rain was 
pricked by the sleepy pang of a mandoline, inscribing on it a 
thoughtful and melancholy little air. I feared the intrusion of a 
single thought or idea which, inserting itself between these 
moments of smiling peace, might inhibit them, turn them to 
instruments of sadness. I thought too of the long journey we 
made from this very bed, since last we lay here together, 
through so many climates and countries, only to return once 
more to our starting-point again, captured once more by the 
gravitational field of the city. A new cycle which was opening 
upon the promise of such kisses and dazed endearments as we 
could now exchange — where would it carry us? I thought of 
some words of Arnauti, written about another woman, in 
another context: "You tell yourself that it is a woman you hold 
in your arms, but watching the sleeper you see all her growth in 
time, the unerring unfolding of cells which group and dispose 
themselves into the beloved face which remains always and 
for ever mysterious — repeating to infinity the soft boss of the 
human nose, an ear borrowed from a sea-shell's helix, an eye- 
brow thought-patterned from ferns, or lips invented by bi- 
valves in their dreaming union. All this process is human, bears 
a name which pierces your heart, and offers the mad dream of 
an eternity which time disproves in every drawn breath. And 
if human personality is an illusion? And if, as biology tells us, 
every single cell in our bodies is replaced every seven years by 
another? At the most I hold in my arms something like a foun- 
tain of flesh, continuously playing, and in my mind a rainbow 
of dust." And like an echo from another point of the compass 
I I heard the sharp voice of Pursewarden saying: "There is no 

98 



Other; there is only oneself facing forever the problem of one's 
self discovery!' ' 

I had drifted into sleep again; and when I woke with a start 
the bed was empty and the candle had guttered away and gone 
out. She was standing at the drawn curtains to watch the dawn 
break over the tumbled roofs of the Arab town, naked and 
slender as an Easter lily. In that spring sunrise, with its dense 
dew, sketched upon the silence which engulfs a whole city 
before the birds awaken it, I caught the sweet voice of the blind 
mutz^in from the mosque reciting the Ebed — a voice hanging 
like a hair in the palm-cooled upper airs of Alexandria. "I 
praise the perfection of God, the Forever existing; the perfec- 
tion of God, the desired, the Existing, the Single, the Supreme; 
the Perfection of God, the One, the Sole". . . . The great 
prayer wound itself in shining coils across the city as I watched 
the grave and passionate intensity of her turned head where she 
stood to observe the climbing sun touch the minarets and 
palms with light: rapt and awake. And listening I smelt the 
warm odour of her hair upon the pillow beside me. The 
buoyancy of a new freedom possessed me like a draught from 
what the Cabal once called "The Fountain of All Existing 
Things". I called "Clea" softly, but she did not heed me; and 
so once more I slept. I knew that Clea would share everything 
with me, withholding nothing — not even the look of complicity 
which women reserve only for their mirrors. 



99 



BOOK II 



So the city claimed me once more — the same city made 
now somehow less poignant and less terrifying than it 
had been in the past by new displacements in time. If 
some parts of the old fabric had worn away, others had 
been restored. In the first few weeks of my new employment IJ 
had time to experience both a sense of familiarity and one of ( 
alienation, measuring stability against change, past against l 
present tense. And if the society of my friends remained rela- 
tively the same, new influences had entered, new winds had 
sprung up; we had all begun, like those figures on revolving 
turntables in jewellers' shops, to turn new facets of ourselves 
towards each other. Circumstances also helped to provide a new 
counterpoint, for the old, apparently unchanged city had now 
entered the penumbra of a war. For my part I had come to see 
it as it must always have been — a shabby little seaport built 
upon a sand-reef, a moribund and spiritless backwater. True 
this unknown factor "war" had given it a specious sort of 
modern value, but this belonged to the invisible world of 
strategies and armies, not to ourselves, the inhabitants; it had 
swollen its population by many thousands of refugees in 
uniform and attracted those long nights of dull torment which 
were only relatively dangerous, for as yet the enemy was con- 
fining his operations strictly to the harbour area. Only a small 
area of the Arab quarter came under direct fire; the upper town 
remained relatively untouched, except perhaps for an occasional 
error of judgement. No, it was only the harbour at which the 
enemy scratched and scratched, like a dog at an inflamed scab. 
A mile away from it the bankers conducted their affairs by day 
as if from the immunity of New York. Intrusions into their 
world were rare and accidental. It came as a painful surprise to 

103 



confront a shop-front which had been blasted in, or a lodging- 
house blown inside out with all its inhabitants' clothes hanging 
in festoons from the neighbouring trees. This was not part of 
the normal expectation of things; it had the shocking rarity 
value merely of some terrible street accident. 

How had things changed? It was not danger, then, but a less 
easily analysable quality which made the notion of war dis- 
tinctive; a sensation of some change in the specific gravity of 
things. It was as if the oxygen content of the air we breathed 
were being steadily, invisibly reduced day by day; and side by 
side with this sense of inexplicable blood-poisoning came other 
pressures of a purely material kind brought about by the huge 
shifting population of soldiers in whom the blossoming of 
death released the passions and profligacies which lie buried in 
every herd. Their furious gaiety tried hard to match the gravity 
of the crisis in which they were involved; at times the town was 
racked by the frenetic outbursts of their disguised spleen and 
boredom until the air became charged with the mad spirit of 
carnival; a saddening and heroic pleasure-seeking which dis- 
turbed and fractured the old harmonies on which personal 
relationships had rested, straining the links which bound us. I 
am thinking of Clea, and her loathing for the war and all it 
stood for. She feared, I think, that the vulgar blood-soaked 
reality of this war world which spread around her might one 
day poison and infect our own kisses. "Is it fastidious to want 
to keep your head, to avoid this curious sexual rush of blood to 
the head which comes with war, exciting the women beyond 
endurance? I would not have thought the smell of death could 
be so exciting to them! Darley, I don't want to be a part of this 
mental saturnalia, these overflowing brothels. And all these 
poor men crowded up here. Alexandria has become a huge 
orphanage, everyone grabbing at the last chance of life. You 
haven't been long enough yet to feel the strain. The disorienta- 
tion. The city was always perverse, but it took its pleasures with 
style at an old-fashioned tempo, even in rented beds: never up 

104 



against a wall or a tree or a truck! And now at times the town 
seems to be like some great public urinal. You step over the 
bodies of drunkards as you walk home at night. I suppose the 
sunless have been robbed even of sensuality and drink com- 
pensates them for the loss! But there is no place in all this for 
me. I cannot see these soldiers as Pombal does. He gloats on 
them like a child — as if they were bright lead soldiers — because 
he sees in them the only hope that France will be freed. I only 
feel ashamed for them, as one might to see friends in convict 
garb; out of shame and sympathy I feel like turning my face 
away. O Darley, it isn't very sensible, and I know I am doing 
them a grotesque injustice. Possibly it is just selfishness. So I 
force myself to serve them teas at their various canteens, roll 
bandages, arrange concerts. But inside myself I shrink smaller 
every day. Yet I always believed that a love of human beings 
would flower more strongly out of a common misfortune. It 
isn't true. And now I am afraid that you too will begin to like 
me the less for these absurdities of thought, these revulsions of 
feeling. To be here, just the two of us, sitting by candle-light 
is almost a miracle in such a world. You can't blame me for 
trying to hoard and protect it against the intrusive world out- 
side can you? Curiously, what I hate most about it all is the 
sentimentality which spells violence in the end!" 

I understood what she meant, and what she feared; and yet 
from the depths of my own inner selfishness I was glad of these 
external pressures, for they circumscribed our world perfectly, 
penned us up more closely together, isolated us! In the old 
world I would have had to share Clea with a host of other 
friends and admirers. Not now. 

Curiously, too, some of these external factors around us, in- 
volving us in its death-struggles — gave our newest passion a 
fulfilment not based on desperation yet nevertheless built just 
as certainly upon the sense of impermanence. It was of the same 
order, though different in kind to the dull orgiastic rut of the 
various armies; it was quite impossible to repudiate the truth, 

105 



namely, that death (not even at hand, but in the air) sharpens 
kisses, adds unbearable poignance to every smile and handclasp. 
Even though I was no soldier the dark question mark hovered 
over our thoughts, for the real issues of the heart were influenced 
by something of which we were all, however reluctantly, part: 
a whole world. If the war did not mean a way of dying, it meant 
a way of ageing, of tasting the true staleness in human things, 
and of learning to confront change bravely. No-one could tell 
what lay beyond the closed chapter of every kiss. In those long 
quiet evenings before the bombardment began we would sit 
upon that small square of carpet by the light of candles, debat- 
ing these matters, punctuating our silences with embraces 
which were the only inadequate answer we could offer to the 
human situation. Nor, lying in each other's arms during those 
long nights of fitful sleep broken by the sirens, did we ever (as 
if by a silent convention) speak of love. To have uttered the 
word might acknowledge a more rare yet less perfect variety of 
the state which now bewitched us, perfected this quite un- 
premeditated relationship. Somewhere in Moeurs there is a 
passionate denunciation of the word. I cannot remember into 
whose mouth the speech has been put — perhaps Justine's. "It 
may be defined as a cancerous growth of unknown origin which 
may take up its site anywhere without the subject knowing or 
wishing it. How often have you tried to love the 'right' person 
in vain, even when your heart knows it has found him after so 
much seeking? No, an eyelash, a perfume, a haunting walk, a 
strawberry on the neck, the smell of almonds on the breath — 
these are the accomplices the spirit seeks out to plan your 
overthrow." 

Thinking of such passages of savage insight — and they are 
many in that strange book — I would turn to the sleeping Clea 
and study her quiet profile in order to ... to ingest her, drink 
the whole of her up without spilling a drop, mingle my very 
heart-beats with hers. "However near we would wish to be, so 
far exactly do we remain from each other" wrote Arnauti. It 

106 



seemed to be no longer true of our condition. Or was I simply 
deluding myself once more, refracting truth by the disorders 
inherent in my own vision? Strangely enough I neither knew 
nor cared now; I had stopped rummaging through my own 
mind, had learned to take her like a clear draught of spring 
water. 

'Have you been watching me asleep?" 

'Yes/' 

'Unfair! But what thinking?' ' 

'Many things." 

'Unfair to watch a sleeping woman, off her guard." 

'Your eyes have changed colour again. Smoke." 
(A mouth whose paint blurred slightly under kisses. The two 
small commas, which were almost cusps, almost ready to turn 
into dimples when the lazy smiles broke surface. She stretches 
and places her arms behind her head, pushing back the helmet 
of fair hair which captures the sheen of the candle-light. In the 
past she had not possessed this authority over her own beauty. 
New gestures, new tendrils had grown, languorous yet adept to 
express this new maturity. A limpid sensuality which was now 
undivided by hesitations, self-questionings. A transformation 
of the old "silly goose" into this fine, indeed impressive, per- 
sonage, quite at one with her own body and mind. How had 
this come about?) 

I: "That commonplace book of Pursewarden's. How the devil 
did you come by it? I took it to the office today." 
She: "Liza. I asked her for something to remember him by. 
Absurd. As if one could forget the brute! He's everywhere. 
Did the notes startle you?" 

I: "Yes. It was as if he had appeared at my elbow. The first 
thing I fell upon was a description of my new chief, Maskelyne 
by name. It seems Pursewarden worked with him once. Shall 
I read it to you?" 
She: "I know it." 
("Like most of my compatriots he had a large hand-illu- 

107 



minated sign hanging up on the front of his mind reading 
ON NO ACCOUNT DISTURB. At some time in the 
distant past he had been wound up and set like a quartz clock. 
He will run his course unfaltering as a metronome. Do not let 
the pipe alarm you. It is intended to give a judicial air. White 
man smoke puff puff, white man ponder puff puff. In fact 
white man is deeply deeply asleep under the badges of office, 
the pipe, the nose, the freshly starched handkerchief sticking 
out of his sleeve.") 

She: "Did you read it to Maskelyne?" 
I: " Naturally not." 

She: "There are wounding things about all of us in it; perhaps 
that is why I took a fancy to it! I could hear the brute's voice 
as he uttered them. You know, my dear, I think I am the only 
person to have loved old Pursewarden for himself while he was 
alive. I got his wavelength. I loved him for himself, I say, 
because strictly he had no self. Of course he could be tiresome, 
difficult, cruel — like everyone else. But he exemplified some- 
thing — a grasp on something. That is why his work will live 
and go on giving off light, so to speak. Light me a cigarette. He 
had cut a foothold in the cliff a bit higher than I could dare to 
go — the point where one looks at the top because one is afraid 
to look down! You tell me that Justine also says something like 
this. I suppose she got the same thing in a way — but I suspect 
her of being merely grateful to him, like an animal whose 
master pulls a thorn from its paw. His intuition was very 
feminine and much sharper than hers — and you know that 
women instinctively like a man with plenty of female in him; 
there, they suspect, is the only sort of lover who can sufficiently 
identify himself with them to . . . deliver them of being just 
women, catalysts, strops, oil-stones. Most of us have to be 
content to play the role of machine a plaisirl" 
I: "Why do you laugh, suddenly like that?" 

"I was remembering making a fool of myself with Purse- 
warden. I suppose I should feel ashamed of it! You will see 

108 



what he says about me in the notebook. He calls me 'a juicy 
Hanoverian goose, the only truly kallipygous girl in the city'! 
I cannot think what possessed me, except that I was so worried 
about my painting. It had dried up on me. I couldn't get any 
further somehow, canvas gave me a headache. I finally decided 
that the question of my own blasted virginity was the root cause 
of the business. You know it is a terrible business to be a 
virgin — it is like not having one's Matric or Bac. You long to 
be delivered from it yet ... at the same time this valuable 
experience should be with someone whom you care for, other- 
wise it will be without value to your inside self. Well, there I 
was, stuck. So with one of those characteristic strokes of fancy 
which in the past confirmed for everyone my stupidity I decided 
— guess what? To offer myself grimly to the only artist I knew 
I could trust, to put me out of my misery. Pursewarden, I 
thought, might have an understanding of my state and some 
consideration for my feelings. I'm amused to remember that I 
dressed myself up in a very heavy tweed costume and flat shoes, 
and wore dark glasses. I was timid, you see, as well as desperate. 
I walked up and down the corridor of the hotel outside his room 
for ages in despair and apprehension, my dark glasses firmly on 
my nose. He was inside. I could hear him whistling as he 
always did when he was painting a water colour; a maddening 
tuneless whistle! At last I burst in on him like a fireman into a 
burning building, startling him, and said with trembling lips: 
'I have come to ask you to depuceler me, please, because I cannot 
get any further with my work unless you do.' I said it in French. 
It would have sounded dirty in English. He was startled. All 
sorts of conflicting emotions flitted across his face for a second. 
And then, as I burst into tears and sat down suddenly on a chair 
he threw his head back and roared with laughter. He laughed 
until the tears ran down his cheeks while I sat there in my dark 
glasses sniffing. Finally he collapsed exhausted on his bed and 
lay staring at the ceiling. Then he got up, put his arms on my 
shoulders, removed my glasses, kissed me, and put them back. 

109 



Then he put his hands on his hips and laughed again. 'My dear 
Clea' he said, 'it would be anyone's dream to take you to bed, 
and I must confess that in a corner of my mind I have often 
allowed the thought to wander but . . . dearest angel, you have 
spoilt everything. This is no way to enjoy you, and no way for 
you to enjoy yourself. Forgive my laughing! You have effec- 
tively spoiled my dream. Offering yourself this way, without 
wanting me, is such an insult to my male vanity that I simply 
would not be able to comply with your demand. It is, I suppose, 
a compliment that you chose me rather than someone else — but 
my vanity is larger than that! In fact your request is like a pailful 
of slops emptied over my head! I shall always treasure the com- 
pliment and regret the refusal but ... if only you had chosen 
some other way to do it, how glad I would have been to oblige! 
Why did you have to let me see that you really did not care for 
meV 

"He blew his nose gravely in a corner of the sheet, took my 
glasses and placed them on his own nose to examine himself in 
the mirror. Then he came and stared at me until the comedy 
overflowed again and we both started laughing. I felt an awful 
sense of relief. And when I had repaired my damaged make-up 
in the mirror he allowed me to take him to dinner to discuss the 
problem of paint with magnificent, generous honesty. The poor 
man listened with such patience to my rigmarole! He said: 'I 
can only tell you what I know, and it isn't much. First you 
have to know and understand intellectually what you want to 
do — then you have to sleep-walk a little to reach it. The real 
obstacle is oneself. I believe that artists are composed of vanity, 
indolence and self-regard. Work-blocks are caused by the 
swelling-up of the ego on one or all of these fronts. You get a 
bit scared about the imaginary importance of what you are 
doing! Mirror-worship. My solution would be to slap a poultice 
on the inflamed parts — tell your ego to go to hell and not make 
a misery of what should be essentially fun, joy/ He said many 
other things that evening, but I have forgotten the rest; but the 

no 



funny thing was that just talking to him, just being talked to, 
seemed to clear the way ahead again. I started work again, clear 
as a bell, the next morning. Perhaps in a funny sort of way he 
did depuceler me? I regretted not being able to reward him as he 
deserved, but I realised that he was right. I would have to wait 
for a tide to turn. And this did not happen until later, in Syria. 
There was something bitter and definitive about it when it 
came, and I made the usual mistakes one makes from inexperi- 
ence and paid for them. Shall I tell you?" 
I: "Only if you wish." 

She: "I found myself suddenly and hopelessly entangled with 
someone I had admired some years before but never quite 
imagined in the context of a lover. Chance brought us together 
for a few short months. I think that neither of us had foreseen 
this sudden coup defoudre. We both caught fire, as if somewhere 
an invisible burning glass had been playing on us without our 
being aware. It is curious that an experience so wounding can 
also be recognised as good, as positively nourishing. I suppose I 
was even a bit eager to be wounded — or I would not have made 
the mistakes I did. He was somebody already committed to 
someone else, so there was never, from the beginning, any pre-_ 
tence of permanence in our liaison. Yet (and here comes my 
famous stupidity again) I very much wanted to have a child by 
him. A moment's thought would have shown me that it would 
have been impossible; but the moment's thought only super- 
vened when I was already pregnant. I did not, I thought, care 
that he must go away, marry someone else. I would at least have 
his child! But when I confessed it — at the very moment the 
words left my lips — I suddenly woke up and realised that this 
would be to perpetuate a link with him to which I had no right. 
To put it plainly I should be taking advantage of him, creating 
a responsibility which would shackle him throughout his mar- 
riage. It came to me in a flash, and I swallowed my tongue. By 
the greatest luck he had not heard my words. He was lying like 
you are now, half asleep, and had not caught my whisper. 

Ill 



'What did you say?' he said. I substituted another remark, made 
up on the spur of the moment. A month later he left Syria. It 
was a sunny day full of the sound of bees. I knew I should have 
to destroy the child. I bitterly regretted it, but there seemed no 
other honourable course to take in the matter. You will prob- 
ably think I was wrong, but even now I am glad I took the 
course I did, for it would have perpetuated something which 
had no right to exist outside the span of these few golden 
months. Apart from that I had nothing to regret. I had been 
immeasurably grown-up by the experience. I was full of grati- 
tude, and still am. If I am generous now in my love-making it 
is perhaps because I am paying back the debt, refunding an old 
love in a new. I entered a clinic and went through with it. 
Afterwards the kindly old anaesthetist called me to the dirty 
sink to show me the little pale homunculus with its tiny nails 
and members. I wept bitterly. It looked like a smashed yolk of 
an egg. The old man turned it over curiously with a sort of 
spatula — as one might turn over a rasher of bacon in a frying- 
pan. I could not match his cold scientific curiosity and felt 
rather sick. He smiled and said: 'It is all over. How relieved 
you must feel!' It was true, with my sadness there was a very 
real relief at having done what I recognised as the right thing. 
Also a sense of loss; my heart felt like a burgled swallow's nest. 
And so back to the mountains, to the same easel and white 
canvas. It is funny but I realised that precisely what wounded 
me most as a woman nourished me most as an artist. But of 
course I missed him for a long time: just a physical being whose 
presence attaches itself without one's knowing, like a piece of 
cigarette paper to the lip. It hurts to pull it away. Bits of the 
skin come off! But hurt or not, I learned to bear it and even to 
cherish it, for it allowed me to come to terms with another 
illusion. Or rather to see the link between body and spirit in a 
new way — for the physique is only the outer periphery, the 
contours of the spirit, its solid part. Through smell, taste, 
touch we apprehend each other, ignite each other's minds; 

112 



information conveyed by the body's odours after orgasm, 
breath, tongue-taste — through these one 'knows' in quite 
primeval fashion. Here was a perfectly ordinary man with no 
exceptional gifts but in his elements, so to speak, how good for 
me; he gave off the odours of good natural objects: like newly 
baked bread, roasting coffee, cordite, sandalwood. In this field 
of rapport I missed him like a skipped meal — I know it sounds 
vulgar! Paracelsus says that thoughts are acts. Of them all, I 
suppose, the sex act is the most important, the one in which 
our spirits most divulge themselves. Yet one feels it is a sort of 
clumsy paraphrase of the poetic, the noetic, thought which shapes 
itself into a kiss or an embrace. Sexual love is knowledge, both 
in etymology and in cold fact; 'he knew her' as the Bible says! 
Sex is the joint or coupling which unites the male and female 
ends of knowledge merely — a cloud of unknowing! When a 
culture goes bad in its sex all knowledge is impeded. We women 
know that. That was when I wrote to you asking if I should 
come to visit you in your island. How grateful I am that you 
did not answer me! It would have been a wrong move at the 
time. Your silence saved me! Ah! my dear, forgive me if I bore 
you with my wanderings, for I see that you are looking some- 
what sleepy! But with you it is such a pleasure to talk away the 
time between love-making! It is a novelty for me. Apart from 
you there is only dear Balthazar — whose rehabilitation, by the 
way, is going on apace. But he has told you? He has been inun- 
dated with invitations since the Mountolive banquet, and it 
seems will have little difficulty in rebuilding the clinic practice 
again." 

I: "But he is far from reconciled to his teeth." 
She: "I know. And he is still rather shaken and hysterical — as 
who would not be. But everything goes forward steadily, and I 
think he will not lapse." 

I: "But what of this sister of Pursewarden's?" 
She: "Liza! I think you will admire her, though I can't tell if 
you will like her. She is rather impressive, indeed perhaps just a 

"3 



little bit frightening. The blindness does not seem like an in- 
capacity, rather it gives an expression of double awareness. She 
listens to one as if one were music, an extra intentness which 
makes one immediately aware of the banality of most of one's 
utterances. She's unlike him, yet very beautiful though deathly 
pale, and her movements are swift and absolutely certain, un- 
like most blind people. I have never seen her miss a door- 
handle or trip on a mat, or pause to get her bearings in a strange 
place. All the little errors of judgement the blind make, like 
talking to a chair which has just been vacated by its owner ♦ . . 
they are absent. One wonders sometimes if she really is blind. 
She came out here to collect his effects and to gather material 
about him for a biography." 
I: "Balthazar hinted at some sort of mystery." 
She: "There is little doubt that David Mountolive is hopelessly 
in love with her; and from what he told Balthazar it began in 
London. It is certainly an unusual liaison for someone so cor- 
rect, and it obviously gives them both a great deal of pain. I 
often imagine them, the snow falling in London, suddenly 
finding themselves face to face with the Comic Demon! Poor 
David! And yet why should I utter such a patronising phrase? 
Lucky David! Yes, I can tell you a little, based on a scrap of 
Balthazar's conversation. Suddenly, in a moribund taxi speeding 
away to the suburbs she turned her face to him and told him that 
she had been told to expect him many years ago; that the 
moment she heard his voice she knew that he was the dark 
princely stranger of the prophecy. He would never leave her. 
And she only asked leave to verify it, pressing her cold fingers 
to his face to feel it all over, before sinking back on the cold 
cushions with a sigh! Yes, it was he. It must have been strange 
to feel the fingers of the blind girl pressing one's features with 
a sculptor's touch. David said that a shudder ran through him, 
all the blood left his face, and his teeth began to chatter! He 
groaned aloud and clenched them together. So they sat there, 
hand in hand, trembling while the snowlit suburbs shuttled by 

114 



the windows. Later she placed his finger upon the exact con- 
figuration in her hand which portended an altered life, and the 
emergence of this unexpected figure which would dominate it! 
Balthazar is sceptical of such prophecies, as you are, and he 
cannot avoid a note of amused irony in recounting the story. 
But so far the enchantment seems to have lasted, so perhaps you 
will concede something to the power of prophecy, sceptic that 
you are! And well: with her brother's death she arrived here, 
has been sorting out papers and manuscripts, as well as inter- 
viewing people who knew him. She came here once or twice to 
talk to me; it wasn't altogether easy for me, though I told her 
all that I could remember of him. But I think the question 
which really filled her mind was one which she did not actually 
utter, namely, had I ever been Pursewarden's mistress? She 
circled round and round it warily. I think, no, I am sure that 
she thought me a liar because what I had to tell her was so 
inconsequent. Indeed perhaps its vagueness suggested that I had 
something to conceal. In the studio I still have the plaster 
negative of the death-mask which I showed Balthazar how to 
make. She held it to her breast for a moment as if to suckle it, 
with an expression of intense pain, her blind eyes seeming to 
grow larger and larger until they overflowed the whole face, and 
turned it into a cave of interrogation. I was horribly embar- 
rassed and sad to suddenly notice, sticking in the plaster, a few 
little shreds of his moustache. And when she tried to place the 
negative together and apply it to her own features I almost 
caught her hand lest she feel them. An absurdity! But her 
manner startled and upset me. Her questions put me on edge. 
There was something shamefully inconclusive about these inter- 
views, and I was mentally apologising to Pursewarden all the 
time in my mind for not making a better showing; one should, 
after all, be able to find something sensible to say of a great 
man whom one fully recognised in his lifetime. Not like poor 
AmariJ who was so furious to see Pursewarden's death-mask 
lying near that of Keats and Blake in the National Portrait 

115 



Gallery. It was all he could do, he says, to prevent himself from 
giving the insolent thing a smack with his hand. Instead he 
abused the object, saying: 'Salaud!' Why did you not tell me 
you were a great man passing through my life? I feel defrauded 
in not noticing your existence, like a child whom someone for- 
got to tell, and who missed the Lord Mayor riding by in his 
coach!' I had no such excuse myself, and yet what could I find 
to say? You see, I think a cardinal factor in all this is that Liza 
lacks a sense of humour; when I said that in thinking of Purse- 
warden I found myself instinctively smiling she put on a 
puzzled frown of interrogation merely. It is possible that they 
never laughed together, I told myself; yet their only real 
similarity in the physical sense is in the alignment of teeth and 
the cut of the mouth. When she is tired she wears the rather 
insolent expression which, on his face, heralded a witticism! 
But I expect you too will have to see her, and tell her what you 
know, what you can remember. It is not easy, facing those 
blind eyes, to know where to begin! As for Justine, she has 
luckily been able to escape Liza so far; I suppose the break 
between Mountolive and Nessim has presented an effective 
enough excuse. Or perhaps David has convinced her that any 
contact might be compromising to him officially. I do not know. 
But I am certain that she has not seen Justine. Perhaps you will 
have to supply her with a picture, for the only references in 
Pursewarden's notes are cruel and perfunctory. Have you 
reached the passages yet in the commonplace book? No. You 
will. I'm afraid none of us gets off very lightly there! As for any 
really profound mystery I think Balthazar is wrong. Essentially 
I think that the problem which engulfs them is simply the 
effect upon him of her blindness. In fact I am sure from the 
evidence of my own eyes. Through the old telescope of Nessim 
. . . yes, the same one! It used to be in the Summer Palace, do 
you recall? When the Egyptians began to expropriate Nessim 
all Alexandria got busy to defend its darling. We all bought 
things from him, intending to hold them for him until every- 

116 



thing had blown over. The Cervonis bought the Arab stock, 
Ganzo the car, which he resold to Pombal, and Pierre Balbz the 
telescope. As he had nowhere to house it Mountolive let him 
put it on the verandah of the summer legation, an ideal site. 
One can sweep the harbour, and most of the town, and in the 
summer dinner guests can do a little mild star-gazing. Well, I 
went up there one afternoon and was told that they were both 
out for a walk, which by the way was a daily custom all winter 
with them. They would take the car down to the Corniche and 
walk along the Stanley Bay front arm in arm for half an hour. 
As I had time to kill I started to fool with the telescope, and 
idly trained it on the far corner of the bay. It was a blowy day, 
with high seas running, and the black flags out which signalled 
dangerous bathing. There were only a few cars about in that 
end of the town, and hardly anyone on foot. Quite soon I saw 
the Embassy car come round the corner and stop on the sea- 
front. Liza and David got down and began to walk away from it 
towards the beach end. It was amazing how clearly I could see 
them; I had the impression that I could touch them by just 
putting out a hand. They were arguing furiously, and she had 
an expression of grief and pain on her face. I increased the 
magnification until I discovered with a shock that I could liter- 
ally lip-read their remarks! It was startling, indeed a little 
frightening. I could not 'hear' him because his face was half 
turned aside, but Liza was looking into my telescope like a 
giant image on a cinema screen. The wind was blowing her dark 
hair back in a shock from her temples, and with her sightless 
eyes she looked like some strange Greek statue come to life. 
She shouted through her tears, 'No, you could not have a blind 
Ambassadress', turning her head from side to side as if trying to 
find a way of escaping this fearful truth — which I must admit 
had not occurred to me until the words registered. David had 
her by the shoulders and was saying something very earnestly, 
but she wasn't heeding. Then with a sudden twist she broke 
free and with a single jump cleared the parapet like a stag, to 

117 



land upon the sand. She began to run towards the sea. David 
shouted something, and stood for a second gesticulating at the 
top of the stone steps to the beach. I had such a distinct picture 
of him then, in that beautifully cut suit of pepper and salt, the 
flower in his button-hole and the old brown waistcoat he loves 
with its gun-metal buttons. He looked a strangely ineffectual 
and petulant figure, his moustache flying in the wind as he 
stood there. After a second of indecision he too jumped down 
on to the sand and started after her. She ran very fast right into 
the water which splashed up, darkening her skirt about her 
thighs and braking her. Then she halted in sudden indecision 
and turned back, while he, rushing in after her, caught her by 
the shoulders and embraced her. They stood for a moment — it 
was so strange — with the waves thumping their legs; and then 
he drew her back to the shore with a strange look of gratitude 
and exultation on his face — as if he were simply delighted by 
this strange gesture. I watched them hurry back to the car. The 
anxious chauffeur was standing in the road with his cap in his 
hand, obviously relieved not to have been called upon to do any 
life-saving. I thought to myself then: 'A blind Ambassadress? 
Why not? If David were a meaner-spirited man he might think 
to himself: "The originality alone would help rather than 
hinder my career in creating for me artificial sympathies to re- 
place the respectful admiration which I dare only to claim by 
virtue of my position!" But he would be too single-minded for 
any such thoughts to enter his mind/ 

"Yet when they arrived back for tea, soaked, he was strangely 
elated. 'We had a little accident* he called gaily as he retired 
with her for a change of clothes. And of course there was no 
further reference to the escapade that evening. Later he asked 
me if I would undertake a portrait of Liza and I agreed. I do 
not know quite why I felt a sense of misgiving about it. I could 
not refuse, yet I have found several ways of delaying the busi- 
ness and would like to put it off indefinitely if I could. It is 
curious to feel as I do, for she would be a splendid subject and 

118 



perhaps if she had several sittings we might get to know each 
other a little and ease the constraint I feel when I am with her. 
Besides, I would really like to do it for his sake, for he has 
always been a good friend. But there it is. ... I shall be curious 
to know what she has to ask you about her brother. And curious 
to see what you will find to say about him." 
I: "He seems to change shape so quickly at every turn of the 
road that one is forced to revise each idea about him almost as 
soon as it is formulated. I'm beginning to wonder about one's 
right to pronounce in this fashion on unknown people." 
She: "I think, my dear, you have a mania for exactitude and an 
impatience with partial knowledge which is . . . well, unfair to 
knowledge itself. How can it be anything but imperfect? I 
don't suppose reality ever bears a close resemblance to human 
truth as, say, El Scob to Yacoub. Myself I would like to be 
content with the poetic symbolism it presents, the shape of 
nature itself as it were. Perhaps this was what Pursewarden was 
trying to convey in those outrageous attacks upon you — have 
you come to the passages called 'My silent conversations with 
Brother Ass'?" 
I: "Not yet." 

She: "Don't be too wounded by them. You must exonerate the 
brute with a good-natured laugh, for after all he was one of us, 
one of the tribe. Relative size of accomplishment doesn't 
matter. As he himself says: 'There is not enough faith, charity 
or tenderness to furnish this world with a single ray of hope — 
yet so long as that strange sad cry rings out over the world, the 
birth-pangs of an artist — all cannot be lost! This sad little 
squeak of rebirth tells us that all still hangs in the balance. 
Heed me, reader, for the artist is you, all of us — the statue 
which must disengage itself from the dull block of marble 
which houses it and start to live. But when? But when? And 
then in another place he says: 'Religion is simply art bastardised 
out of all recognition' — a characteristic remark. It was the 
central point of his difference with Balthazar and the Cabal. 

119 



Pursewarden had turned the whole central proposition upside 
down." 

I: "To suit his private ends/' 

She: "No. To suit his own immortal needs. There was nothing 
dishonest about it all. If you are born of the artist tribe it is a 
waste of time to try and function as a priest. You have to be 
faithful to your angle of vision, and at the same time fully 
recognise its partiality. There is a kind of perfection to be 
achieved in matching oneself to one's capacities — at every level. 
This must, I imagine, do away with striving, and with illusions 
too. I myself always admired old Scobie as a thoroughly success- 
ful example of this achievement in his own way. He was quite 
successfully himself, I thought/' 

I: "Yes, I suppose so. I was thinking of him today. His name 
cropped up at the office in some connection. Clea, imitate him 
again. You do it so perfectly that I am quite dumb with 
admiration." 

She: "But you know all his stories." 
I: "Nonsense. They were inexhaustible." 
She: "And I wish I could imitate his expression! That look of 
portentous owlishness, the movement of the glass eye! Very 
well; but close your eyes and hear the story of Toby's downfall, 
one of his many downfalls. Are you ready?" 
I: "Yes." 

She: "He told it to me in the course of a dinner-party just before 
I went to Syria. He said he had come into some money and 
insisted on taking me to the Lutetia in ceremonial fashion 
where we dined on scampi and Chianti. It began like this in a 
low confidential tone. 'Now the thing about Toby that charac- 
terised him was a superb effrontery, the fruit of perfect breed- 
ing! I told you his father was an M.P.? No? Funny, 1 thought I 
mentioned it in passing. Yes, he was very highly placed, you 
might say. But Toby never boasted of it. In fact, and this shows 
you, he actually asked me to treat the matter with discretion 
and not mention it to his shipmates. He didn't want any 

I20 



favours, he said. He didn't want people sucking up to him 
neither, just because his father was an M.P. He wanted to go 
through life incognito, he said, and make his own career by 
hard work. Mind you, he was almost continuously in trouble 
with the upper deck. It was his religious convictions more than 
anything, I think. He had a remorseless taste for the cloth did 
old Toby. He was vivid. The only career he wanted was to be a 
sky-pilot. But somehow he couldn't get himself ordained. They 
said he drank too much. But he said it was because his vocation 
was so strong that it pushed him to excesses. If only they'd 
ordain him, he said, everything would be all right. He'd come 
right off the drink. He told me this many a time when he was 
on the Yokohama run. When he was drunk he was always trying 
to hold services in Number One hold. Naturally people com- 
plained and at Goa the captain made a bishop come aboard to 
reason with him. It was no go. ' 'Scurvy" he used to say to me, 
"Scurvy, I shall die a martyr to my vocation, that's what." But 
there's nothing in life like determination. Toby had plenty of 
it. And I wasn't at all surprised one day, after many years, to 
see him come ashore ordained. Just how he'd squeezed into the 
Church he never would tell. But one of his mates said that he 
got a slightly tainted Chinese Catholic bishop to ordain him on 
the sly in Hong Kong. Once the articles were all signed sealed and 
wrapped up there was nothing anyone could do, so the Church 
had to put a good face on it, taint and all. After that he became 
a holy terror, holding services everywhere and distributing 
cigarette cards of the saints. The ship he was serving on got 
fed up and paid him off. They framed him up; said he had been 
seen going ashore carrying a lady's handbag! Toby denied it 
and said it was something religious, a chasuble or something 
that they mistook for a handbag. Anyway he turned up on a 
passenger-ship next carrying pilgrims. He said that at last he 
had fulfilled himself. Services all day long in "A" Lounge, and 
no one to hinder the word of the Lord. But I noticed with 
alarm that he was drinking more heavily than before and he had 

121 



a funny cracked sort of laugh. It wasn't the old Toby. I wasn't 
surprised to hear he had been in trouble again. Apparently he 
had been suspected of being drunk on duty and of having made 
an unflattering reference to a bishop's posterior. Now this 
shows his superb cleverness, for when he came up for court 
martial he had the perfect answer ready. I don't quite know 
how they do court martials in the Church, but I suppose this 
pilgrim boat was full of bishops or something and they did it 
drum-head fashion in "A" Lounge. But Toby was too fast for 
them with his effrontery. There's nothing like breeding to make 
you quick at answering. His defence was that if anyone had 
heard him breathing heavily at Mass it was his asthma; and 
secondly he hadn't never mentioned anyone's posterior. He had 
talked about a bishop's fox terrier! Isn't it dazzling? It was the 
smartest thing he ever did, old Toby, though I've never known 
him at a loss for a clever answer. Well, the bishops were so 
staggered that they let him off with a caution and a thousand 
Ave Marias as a penance. This was pretty easy for Toby; in fact 
it was no trouble at all because he'd bought a little Chinese 
prayer-wheel which Budgie had fixed up to say Ave Marias for 
him. It was a simple little device, brilliantly adapted to the 
times as you might say. One revolution was an Ave Maria or 
fifty beads. It simplified prayer, he said; in fact one could go on 
praying without thinking. Later someone told on him and it 
was confiscated by the head bloke. Another caution for poor 
Toby. But nowadays he treated everything with a toss of the 
head and a scornful laugh. He was riding for a fall, you see. He 
had got a bit above himself. I couldn't help noticing how much 
he'd changed because he touched here nearly every week with 
these blinking pilgrims. I think they were Italians visiting the 
Holy Places. Back and forth they went, and with them Toby. 
But he had changed. He was always in trouble now, and 
seemed to have thrown off all restraint. He had gone completely 
fanciful. Once he called on me dressed as a cardinal with a red 
beret and a sort of lampshade in his hand. "Cor!" I gasped. 

122 



"You aren't half orchidaceous, Toby!" Later he got very 
sharply told off for dressing above his rank, and I could see that 
it was only a matter of time before he fell out of the balloon, 
so to speak. I did what I could as an old friend to reason with 
him but somehow I couldn't bring him to see the point. I even 
tried to get him back on to beer but it wasn't any go at all. 
Nothing but fire water for Toby. Once I had to have him car- 
ried back aboard by the police. He was all figged up in a 
prelate's costume. I think they call it a shibboleth. And he 
tried to pronounce an anathema on the city from "A" Boat 
Deck. He was waving an apse or something. The last thing I 
saw of him was a lot of real bishops restraining him. They were 
nearly as purple as his own borrowed robes. My, how those 
Italians carried on! Then came the crash. They nabbed him in 
fragrant delicto swigging the sacramental wine. You know it 
has the Pope's Seal on it, don't you? You buy it from Corn- 
ford's, the Ecclesiastical Retailers in Bond Street, ready sealed 
and blessed. Toby had broken the seal. He was finished. I don't 
know whether they ex-communicate or what, but anyway he 
was struck off the register properly. The next time I saw him. 
he was a shadow of his old self and dressed as an ordinary sea- 
man. He was still drinking heavily but in a different way now, 
he said. "Scurvy" he said. "Now I simply drink to expiate my 
sins. I'm drinking as a punishment now, not a pleasure." The 
whole tragedy had made him very moody and restless. He 
talked of going off to Japan and becoming a religious body 
there. The only thing that prevented him was that there you 
have to shave your head and he couldn't bear to part with his 
hair which was long, and was justly admired by his friends. 
"No" he said, after discussing the idea, "no, Scurvy old man, 
I couldn't bring myself to go about as bald as an egg, after 
what I've been through. It would give me a strangely roofless 
appearance at my age. Besides once when I was a nipper I got 
ringworm and lost my crowning glory. It took ages to grow 
again. It was so slow that I feared it never would come into 

123 






bloom again. Now I couldn't bear to be parted from it. Not 
for anything." I saw his dilemma perfectly, but I didn't see any 
way out for him. He would always be a square peg would old 
Toby, swimming against the stream. Mind you, it was a mark 
of his originality. For a little while he managed to live by 
blackmailing all the bishops who'd been to confession while he 
was O.C. Early Mass, and twice he got a free holiday in Italy. 
But then other troubles came his way and he shipped to the 
Far East, working in Seamen's Hostels when he was ashore, and 
telling everyone that he was going to make a fortune out of 
smuggled diamonds. I see him very rarely now, perhaps once 
every three years, and he never writes; but I'll never forget old 
Toby. He was always such a gentleman in spite of his little 
mishaps, and when his father dies he expects to have a few 
hundred a year of his own. Then we're going to join forces in 
Horsham with Budgie and put the earth-closet trade on a real 
economic basis. Old Budgie can't keep books and flies. That's a 
job for me with my police training. At least so old Toby always 
said. I wonder where he is now?' " 

The recital ended, the laughter suddenly expired and a new 
expression appeared on Clea's face which I did not remember 
ever having seen before. Something between a doubt and an 
apprehension which played about the mouth like a shadow. She 
added with a studied naturalness which was somehow strained: 
"Afterwards he told my fortune. I know you will laugh. He 
said he could only do it with certain people and at certain 
times. Will you believe me if I tell you that he described with 
perfect fidelity and in complete detail the whole Syrian 
episode?" She turned her face to the wall with an abrupt move- 
ment and to my surprise I saw her lips were trembling. I put 
my hand up her warm shoulder and said "Clea" very softly. 
"What is it?" Suddenly she cried out: "O leave me alone. 
Can't you see I want to sleep?" 



124 



II 

MY CONVERSATIONS WITH BROTHER ASS 

(heing extracts from Pursewarden's Notebook) 

With what a fearful compulsion we return to it 
again and again — like a tongue to a hollow 
tooth — this question of writing! Can writers 
talk nothing but shop then? No. But with old 
Darley I am seized with a sort of convulsive vertigo for, while 
we have everything in common, I find I cannot talk to him at 
all. But wait. I mean that I do talk: endlessly, passionately, 
hysterically without uttering a word aloud! There is no way to 
drive a wedge between his ideas which, mafoi, are thoughtful, 
orderly, the very essence of "soundness". Two men propped on 
bar-stools thoughtfully gnawing at the universe as if at a stick 
of sugar-cane! The one speaks in a low, modulated voice, using 
language with tact and intuition; the other shifts from buttock 
to listless buttock shamefacedly shouting in his own mind, but 
only answering with an occasional affirmative or negative to 
these well-rounded propositions which are, for the most part, 
incontestably valuable and true! This would perhaps make the 
germ of a short story? ("But Brother Ass, there is a whole 
dimension lacking to what you say. How is it possible for one 
to convey this in Oxford English?") Still with sad penitential 
frowns the man on the high bar-stool proceeds with his exposi- 
tion about the problem of the creative act — I ask you! From 
time to time he shoots a shyish sideways glance at his tor- 
mentor — for in a funny sort of way I do seem to torment him; 
otherwise he would not always be at me, aiming the button of 
his foil at the chinks in my self-esteem, or at the place where 
he believes I must keep my heart. No, we would be content 

125 



with simpler conversational staples like the weather. In me he 
scents an enigma, something crying out for the probe. ("But 
Brother Ass, I am as clear as a bell — a sancing bell! The problem 
is there, here, nowhere!") At times while he is talking like this 
I have the sudden urge to jump on his back and ride him 
frantically up and down Rue Fuad, thrashing him with a 
Thesaurus and crying: "Awake, moon-calf! Let me take you by 
your long silken jackass's ears and drive you at a gallop through 
the waxworks of our literature, among the clicking of Box 
Brownies each taking its monochrome snapshots of so-called 
reality! Together we will circumvent the furies and become 
celebrated for our depiction of the English scene, of English 
life which moves to the stately rhythm of an autopsy! Do you 
hear me, Brother Ass?" 

He does not hear, he will not hear. His voice comes to me 
from a great way off, as if over a faulty land-line. "Hullo! Can 
you hear me?" I cry, shaking the receiver. I hear his voice 
faintly against the roaring of Niagara Falls. "What is that? 
Did you say that you wished to contribute to English litera- 
ture? What, to arrange a few sprigs of parsley over this dead 
turbot? To blow diligently into the nostrils of this corpse? Have 
you mobilised your means, Brother Ass? Have you managed to 
annul your early pot-training? Can you climb like a cat- 
burglar with loosened sphincters? But then what will you say 
to people whose affective life is that of hearty Swiss hoteliers? 
I will tell you. I will say it and save all you artists the trouble. 
A simple word. Edelweiss, Say it in a low well-modulated voice 
with a refined accent, and lubricate it with a sigh! The whole 
secret is there, in a word which grows above snowline! And 
then, having solved the problem of ends and means you will 
have to face another just as troublesome — for if by any chance a 
work of art should cross the Channel it would be sure to be 
turned back at Dover on the grounds of being improperly 
dressed! It is not easy, Brother Ass. (Perhaps it would be wisest 
to ask the French for intellectual asylum?) But I see you will not 

126 



heed me. You continue in the same unfaltering tone to 
describe for me the literary scene which was summed up once 
and for all by the poet Gray in the line 'The lowing herd winds 
slowly o'er the lea'! Here I cannot deny the truth of what you 
say. It is cogent, it is prescient, it is carefully studied. But I 
have taken my own precautions against a nation of mental 
grannies. Each of my books bears a scarlet wrapper with the 
legend: NOT TO BE OPENED BY OLD WOMEN OF EITHER 
SEX. (Dear D.H.L. so wrong, so right, so great, may his ghost 
breathe on us all!)" 

He puts down his glass with a little click and sighing runs 
his fingers through his hair. Kindness is no excuse, I tell myself. 
Disinterested goodness is no exoneration from the basic de- 
mands of the artist's life. You see, Brother Ass, there is my life 
and then the life of my life. They must belong as fruit and 
rind. I am not being cruel. It is simply that I am not indulgent! 

"How lucky not to be interested in writing" says Darley 
with a touch of plaintive despair in his tone. "I envy you." But 
he does not, really, not at all. Brother Ass, I will tell you a 
short story. A team of Chinese anthropologists arrived in 
Europe to study our habits and beliefs. Within three weeks 
they were all dead. They died of uncontrollable laughter and 
were buried with full military honours! What do you make of 
that? We have turned ideas into a paying form of tourism. 

Darley talks on with slanting eye buried in his gin-sling. I 
reply wordlessly. In truth I am deafened by the pomposity of 
my own utterances. They echo in my skull like the reverberating 
eructations of Zarathustra, like the wind whistling through 
Montaigne's beard. At times I mentally seize him by the 
shoulders and shout: "Should literature be a path-finder or a 
bromide? Decide! Decide!" 

He does not heed, does not hear me. He has just come from 
the library, from the pot-house, or from a Bach concert (the 
gravy still running down his chin). We have aligned our shoes 
upon the polished brass rail below the bar. The evening has 

127 



begun to yawn around us with the wearisome promise of girls 
to be ploughed. And here is Brother Ass discoursing upon the 
book he is writing and from which he has been thrown, as from 
a horse, time and time again. It is not really art which is at 
issue, it is ourselves. Shall we always be content with the 
ancient tinned salad of the subsidised novel? Or the tired ice- 
cream of poems which cry themselves to sleep in the refriger- 
ators of the mind? If it were possible to adopt a bolder scansion, 
a racier rhythm we might all breathe more freely! Poor Darley's 
books — will they always be such painstaking descriptions of the 
soul-states of . . . the human omelette? (Art occurs at the point 
where a form is sincerely honoured by an awakened spirit.) 
1 his one s on me. 

"No, old man, on me" 

"No. No; I insist." 

"No. It's my turn." * 

This amiable quibble allows me just the split second I need 
to jot down the salient points for my self-portrait on a rather 
ragged cuff. I think it covers the whole scope of the thing with 
admirable succinctness, Item one. "Like all fat men I tend to be 
my own hero." Item two. "Like all young men I set out to be a 
genius, but mercifully laughter intervened." Item three. "I 
always hoped to achieve the Elephant's Eye view." Item four. 
"I realised that to become an artist one must shed the whole 
complex of egotisms which led to the choice of self-expression 
as the only means of growth! This because it is impossible I call 
The Whole Joke!" 

Darley is talking of disappointments! But Brother Ass, dis- 
enchantment is the essence of the game. With what high hopes 
we invaded London from the provinces in those old dead days, 
our manuscripts bagging out suitcases. Do you recall? With 
what emotion we gazed over Westminster Bridge, reciting 
Wordsworth's indifferent sonnet and wondering if his daughter 
grew up less beautiful for being French. The whole metropolis 
seemed to quiver with the portent of our talent, our skill, our 

128 



discernment. Walking along the Mall we wondered who all 
those men were — tall hawk-featured men perched on balconies 
and high places, scanning the city with heavy binoculars. What 
were they seeking so earnestly? Who were they — so composed 
and steely-eyed? Timidly we stopped a policeman to ask him. 
"They are publishers' ' he said mildly. Publishers! Our hearts 
stopped beating. "They are on the look out for new talent/ ' 
Great God! It was for us they were waiting and watching! Then 
the kindly policeman lowered his voice confidentially and said 
in hollow and reverent tones: "They are waiting for the new 
Trollope to he horn!" Do you remember, at these words, how 
heavy our suitcases suddenly felt? How our blood slowed, our 
footsteps lagged? Brother Ass, we had been bashfully thinking 
of a kind of illumination such as Rimbaud dreamed of — a nag- 
ging poem which was not didactic or expository but which 
infected — was not simply a rationalised intuition, I mean, 
clothed in isinglass! We had come to the wrong shop, with the 
wrong change! A chill struck us as we saw the mist falling in 
Trafalgar Square, coiling around us its tendrils of ectoplasm! A 
million muffin-eating moralists were waiting, not for us, 
Brother Ass, but for the plucky and tedious Trollope! (If you 
are dissatisfied with your form, reach for the curette,) Now do 
you wonder if I laugh a little off-key? Do you ask yourself what 
has turned me into nature's bashful little aphorist? 

Disguised as an eiron, why who should it he 
But tuft-hunting, dram-drinking, toad-eating Mel 

We who are, after all, simply poor co-workers in the psyche of 
our nation, what can we expect but the natural automatic 
rejection from a public which resents interference? And quite 
right too. There is no injustice in the matter, for I also resent 
interference, Brother Ass, just as you do. No, it is not a ques- 
tion of being aggrieved, it is a question of being unlucky. Of 
the ten thousand reasons for my books' unpopularity I shall 
only bother to give you the first, for it includes all the others. 

129 



A puritan culture's conception of art is of something which 
will endorse its morality and flatter its patriotism. Nothing 
else. I see you raise your eyebrows. Even you, Brother Ass, 
realise the basic unreality of this proposition. Nevertheless it 
explains everything. A puritan culture, argal, does not know 
what art is — how can it be expected to care? (I leave religion to 
the bishops — there it can do most harm!) 

No croked legge, no blered eye, 
no part deformed out of kinde 
Nor yet so onolye half can he 
As is the inward suspicious minde. 

The wheel is patience on to which I'm hound. 
Time is this nothingness within the round. 

Gradually we compile our own anthologies of misfortune, 
our dictionaries of verbs and nouns, our copulas and gerun- 
dives. That symptomatic policeman of the London dusk first 
breathed the message to us! That kindly father-figure put the 
truth in a nutshell. And here we are both in a foreign city built 
of smegma-tinted crystal and tinsel whose moeurs, if we described 
them, would be regarded as the fantasies of our disordered 
brains. Brother Ass, we have the hardest lesson of all to learn 
as yet — that truth cannot be forced but must be allowed to 
plead for itself! Can you hear me? The line is faulty again, your 
voice has gone far away. I hear the water rushing! 

Be hleak } young man, and let who will he sprightly, 

And honour Venus if you can twice nightly. 

All things heing equal you should not refuse 

To ring the slow sad cowhell of the English muse! 

Art's Truth's Nonentity made quite explicit. 
If it ain't this then what the devil is it? 

Writing in my room last night I saw an ant upon the table. 

130 



It crossed near the inkwell, and I saw it hesitate at the white- 
ness of a sheet of paper on which I had written the word 
"Love"; my pen faltered, the ant turned back, and suddenly 
my candle guttered and went out. Clear octaves of yellow light 
flickered behind my eyeballs. I had wanted to start a sentence 
with the words "Proponents of love" — but the thought had 
guttered out with the candle! Later on, just before dropping off 
to sleep an idea struck me. On the wall above my bed I wrote 
in pencil the words: "What is to be done when one cannot 
share one's own opinions about love?." I heard my own exas- 
perated sigh as I was dropping off to sleep. In the morning I 
awoke, clear as a perforated appendix, and wrote my own 
epitaph on the mirror with my shaving-stick: 

"I never knew which side my art was buttered" 
Were the Last Words that poor Pursewarden uttered! 

As for the proponents of love, I was glad they had vanished 
for they would have led me irresistibly in the direction of sex — ■ 
that bad debt which hangs upon my compatriots' consciences. 
The quiddity! The veritable nub and quiddity of this dis- 
ordered world, and the only proper field for the deployment of 
our talents, Brother Ass. But one true, honest unemphatic word 
in this department will immediately produce one of those 
neighing and whinnying acts peculiar to our native intellec- 
tuals! For them sex is either a Gold Rush or a Retreat from 
Moscow. And for us? No, but if we are to be a moment serious 
I will explain what I mean. (Cuckow, Cuckow, a merry note, 
unpleasing to the pigskin ear.) I mean more than they think. 
(The strange sad hermaphrodite figure of the London dusk — the 
Guardsman waiting in Ebury Street for the titled gent.) No, 
quite another region of enquiry which cannot be reached with- 
out traversing this terrain vague of the partial spirits. Our topic, 
Brother Ass, is the same, always and irremediably the same — I 
spell the word for you: 1-o-v-e. Four letters, each letter a 
volume! The point faihle of the human psyche, the very site of 

I3 1 



the carcinoma maxima! How, since the Greeks, has it got 
mixed up with the cloaca maxima? It is a complete mystery to 
which the Jews hold the key unless my history is faulty. For 
this gifted and troublesome race which has never known art, 
but exhausted its creative processes purely in the construction 
of ethical systems, has fathered on us all, literally impregnated 
the Western European psyche with, the whole range of ideas 
based on "race" and sexual containment in the furtherance of 
the race! I hear Balthazar growling and lashing his tail! But 
where the devil do these fantasies of purified bloodstreams come 
from? Am I wrong to turn to the fearful prohibitions listed in 
Leviticus for an explanation of the manic depressive fury of 
Plymouth Brethren and a host of other dismal sectarians? We 
have had our testicles pinched for centuries by the Mosaic Law; 
hence the wan and pollarded look of our young girls and boys. 
Hence the mincing effrontery of adults willed to perpetual 
adolescence! Speak, Brother Ass! Do you need me? If I am 
wrong you have only to say so! But in my conception of the 
four-letter word — which I am surprised has not been black- 
listed with the other three by the English printer — I am some- 
what bold and sweeping. I mean the whole bloody range — from 
the little greenstick fractures of the human heart right up to its 
higher spiritual connivance with the . . . well, the absolute ways 
of nature, if you like. Surely, Brother Ass, this is the improper 
study of man? The main drainage of the soul? We could make 
an atlas of our sighs! 

Zeus gets Hera on her hack 

But finds that she has lost the knack 

Extenuated hy excesses 

She is unable, she confesses. 

Nothing daunted Zeus, who wise is, 
Tries a doztn good disguises. 
Eagle, ram, and bull and bear 
Quickly answer Hera's prayer. 
132 



One knows a God should he prolix^ 

But . . . think of all those different ******/ 

But I break off here in some confusion, for I see that I am in 
danger of not taking myself as seriously as I should! And this 
is an unpardonable offence. Moreover I missed your last remark 
which was something about the choice of a style. Yes, Brother 
Ass, the choice of a style is most important; in the market 
garden of our domestic culture you will find strange and 
terrible blooms with every stamen standing erect. O to write 
like Ruskin! When poor Effie Grey tried to get to his bed, he 
shoo'd the girl away! O to write like Carlyle! Haggis of the 
mind. When a Scotsman comes to toun Can Spring be far 
behind? No. Everything you say is truthful and full of point; 
relative truth, and somewhat pointless point, but nevertheless I 
will try and think about this invention of the scholiasts, for 
clearly style is as important to you as matter to me. 

How shall we go about it? Keats, the word-drunk, searched 
for resonance among vowel-sounds which might give him an 
echo of his inner self. He sounded the empty coffin of his early 
death with patient knuckles, listening to the dull resonances 
given off by his certain immortality. Byron was off-hand with 
English, treating it as master to servant; but the language, 
being no lackey, grew up like tropic lianas between the cracks 
of his verses, almost strangling the man. He really lived, his 
life was truly imaginary; under the figment of the passional self 
there is a mage, though he himself was not aware of the fact. 
Donne stopped upon the exposed nerve, jangling the whole 
cranium. Truth should make one wince, he thought. He hurts 
us, fearing his own facility; despite the pain of the stopping his 
verse must be chewed to rags. Shakespeare makes all Nature 
hang its head. Pope, in an anguish of method, like a constipated 
child, sandpapers his surfaces to make them slippery for our 
feet. Great stylists are those who are least certain of their effects. 
The secret lack in their matter haunts them without knowing it! 

133 



Eliot puts a cool chloroform pad upon a spirit too tightly 
braced by the information it has gathered. His honesty of 
measure and his resolute bravery to return to the headsman's 
axe is a challenge to us all; but where is the smile? He induces 
awkward sprains at a moment when we are trying to dance! He 
has chosen greyness rather than light, and he shares his portion 
with Rembrandt. Blake and Whitman are awkward brown 
paper parcels full of vessels borrowed from the temple which 
tumble all over the place when the string breaks. Longfellow 
heralds the age of invention for he first thought out the 
mechanical piano. You pedal, it recites. Lawrence was a limb of 
the genuine oak-tree, with the needed girth and span. Why did 
he show them that it mattered, and so make himself vulnerable 
to their arrows? Auden also always talks. He has manumitted 
the colloquial. . . . 

But here, Brother Ass, I break off; for clearly this is not 
higher or even lower criticism! I do not see this sort of fustian 
going down at our older universities where they are still pain- 
fully trying to extract from art some shadow of justification for 
their way of life. Surely there must be a grain of hope, they ask 
anxiously? After all, there must be a grain of hope for decent 
honest Christian folk in all this rigmarole which is poured out 
by our tribe from generation to generation. Or is art simply the 
little white stick which is given to the blind man and by the 
help of which he tap tap taps along a road he cannot see but 
which he is certain is there? Brother Ass, it is for you to decide! 

When I was chided by Balthazar for being equivocal I replied, 
without a moment's conscious thought: " Words being what 
they are, people being what they are, perhaps it would be better 
always to say the opposite of what one means?" Afterwards, 
when I reflected on this view (which I did not know that I held) 
it seemed to me really eminently sage! So much for conscious 
thought: you see, we Anglo-Saxons are incapable of thinking 
for ourselves; about, yes. In thinking about ourselves we put up 
every kind of pretty performance in every sort of voice, from 

134 



cracked Yorkshire to the hot-potato-in-the-mouth voice of the 
BBC. There we excel, for we see ourselves at one remove from 
reality, as a subject under a microscope. This idea of objectivity 
is really a flattering extension of our sense of humbug. When 
you start to think for yourself it is impossible to cant — and we 
live by cant! Ah! I hear you c\y with a sigh, another of those 
English writers, eminent jailors of the soul! How they weary 
and disturb us! Very true and very sad. 

Hail! Albion drear, fond home of cant! 
Pursewarden sends thee greetings scant. 
Thy notions he's turned back to front 
Abhorring cant, adoring **** 

But if you wish to enlarge the image turn to Europe, the Europe 
which spans, say, Rabelais to de Sade. A progress from the 
belly-consciousness to the head-consciousness, from flesh and 
food to sweet (sweet!) reason. Accompanied by all the inter- 
changing ills which mock us. A progress from religious ecstasy 
to duodenal ulcer! (It is probably healthier to be entirely brain- 
less.) But, Brother Ass, this is something which you did not 
take into account when you chose to compete for the Heavy- 
weight Belt for Artists of the Millennium. It is too late to 
complain. You thought you would somehow sneak by the penal- 
ties without being called upon to do more than demonstrate 
your skill with words. But words . . . they are only an Aeolian 
harp, or a cheap xylophone. Even a sea-lion can learn to balance 
a football on its nose or to play the slide trombone in a circus. 
What lies beyond. . . ? 

No, but seriously, if you wished to be — I do not say original 
but merely contemporary — you might try a four-card trick in 
the form of a novel; passing a common axis through four 
stories, say, and dedicating each to one of the four winds of 
heaven. A continuum, forsooth, embodying not a temps retrouve 
but a temps delivre. The curvature of space itself would give you 
stereoscopic narrative, while human personality seen across a 

135 



continuum would perhaps become prismatic? Who can say? I 
throw the idea out. I can imagine a form which, if satisfied, 
might raise in human terms the problems of causality or in- 
determinacy. . . . And nothing very recherche either. Just an 
ordinary Girl Meets Boy story. But tackled in this way you 
would not, like most of your contemporaries, be drowsily cutting 
along a dotted line! 

That is the sort of question which you will one day be forced 
to ask yourself (" We will never get to Mecca!" as the Tchekhov 
sisters remarked in a play, the title of which I have forgotten.) 

Nature he loved, and next to nature nudes, 
He strove with every woman worth the strife, 
Warming both cheeks before the fire of life, 
And fell, doing battle with a million prudes. 

Who dares to dream of capturing the fleeting image of truth 
in all its gruesome multiplicity? (No, no, let us dine cheerfully 
off scraps of ancient discarded poultice and allow ourselves to be 
classified by science as wet and dry bobs.) 

Whose are the figures I see before me, fishing the brackish 
reaches of the C. of E.? 

One writes, Brother Ass, for the spiritually starving, the 
castaways of the soul! They will always be a majority even 
when everyone is a state-owned millionaire. Have courage, for 
here you will always be master of your audience! Genius which 
cannot be helped should be politely ignored. 

Nor do I mean that it is useless to master and continuously 
practise your craft. No. A good writer should be able to write 
anything. But a great writer is the servant of compulsions 
which are ordained by the very structure of the psyche and 
cannot be disregarded. Where is he? Where is he? 

Come, let us collaborate on a four- or five-decker job, shall 
we? "Why the Curate Slipped' ' would be a good title. Quick, 
they are waiting, those hypnagogic figures among the London 
minarets, the muezjin of the trade. "Does Curate get girl as well 

136 



as stipend, or only stipend? Read the next thousand pages and 
find out!" English life in the raw — like some pious melodrama 
acted by criminal churchwardens sentenced to a lifetime of 
sexual misgivings! In this way we can put a tea-cosy over reality 
to our mutual advantage, writing it all in the plain prose which 
is only just distinguishable from galvanised iron. In this way 
we will put a lid on a box with no sides! Brother Ass, let us 
conciliate a world of listless curmudgeons who read to verify, 
not their intuitions, but their prejudices! 

I remember old Da Capo saying one afternoon: ' 'Today I had 
five girls, I know it will seem excessive to you. I was not trying 
to prove anything to myself. But if I said that I had merely 
blended five teas to suit my palate or five tobaccos to suit my 
pipe, you would not give the matter a second thought. You 
would, on the contrary, admire my eclecticism, would you not?" 

The belly-furbished Kenilworth at the F.O. once told me 
plaintively that he had "just dropped in" on James Joyce out of 
curiosity, and was surprised and pained to find him rude, arro- 
gant and short-tempered. "But" I said "he was paying for his 
privacy by giving lessons to niggers at one and six an hour! He 
might have been entitled to feel safe from ineffables like your- 
self who imagine that art is something to which a good educa- 
tion automatically entitles you; that it is a part of a social 
equipment, class aptitude, like painting water-colours was for a 
Victorian gentlewoman! I can imagine his poor heart sinking as 
he studied your face, with its expression of wayward condescen- 
sion — the fathomless self-esteem which one sees occasionally 
flit across the face of a goldfish with a hereditary title!" After 
this we never spoke, which was what I wanted. The art of 
making necessary enemies! Yet one thing I liked in him: he 
pronounced the word 'Civilisation' as if it had an S-bend in it. 

(Brother Ass is on symbolism now, and really talking good 
sense, I must admit.) Symbolism! The abbreviation of language 
into poem. The heraldic aspect of reality! Symbolism is the 
great repair-outfit of the psyche, Brother Ass, the fond de pouvoir 

137 



of the soul. The sphincter-loosening music which copies the 
ripples of the soul's progress through human flesh, playing in us 
like electricity! (Old Parr, when he was drunk, said once: 
"Yes, but it hurts to realise!") 

Of course it does. But we know that the history of literature 
is the history of laughter and pain. The imperatives from which 
there is no escape are: Laugh till it hurts, and hurt till you laugh! 

The greatest thoughts are accessible to the least of men. Why 
do we have to struggle so? Because understanding is a function 
not of ratiocination but of the psyche's stage of growth. There, 
Brother Ass, is the point at which we are at variance. No 
amount of explanation can close the gap. Only realisation! One 
day you are going to wake from your sleep shouting with 
laughter. Ecco! 

About Art I always tell myself: while they are watching the 
firework display, yclept Beauty, you must smuggle the truth 
into their veins like a filter-passing virus! This is easier said 
than done. How slowly one learns to embrace the paradox! 
Even I am not there as yet; nevertheless, like that little party of 
explorers, "Though we were still two days' march from the 
falls we suddenly heard their thunder growing up in the dis- 
tance"! Ah! those who merit it may one day be granted a rebirth- 
certificate by a kindly Government Department. This will 
entitle them to receive everything free of charge — a prize 
reserved for those who want nothing. Celestial economics, 
about which Lenin is strangely silent! Ah! the gaunt faces of 
the English muses! Pale distressed gentlewomen in smocks and 
beads, dispensing tea and drop-scones to the unwary! 

The foxy faces 

Of Edwardian Graces 

Horse-faces full of charm 

With strings of beads 

And a packet of seeds 

And an ape-tuft under each arm! 

i 3 8 



Society! Let us complicate existence to the point of drudgery 
so that it acts as a drug against reality. Unfair! Unfair! But, my 
dear Brother Ass, the sort of book I have in mind will be 
characterised by the desired quality which will make us rich 
and famous: it will be characterised by a total lack of codpiecel 

When I want to infuriate Balthazar I say: "Now if the Jews 
would only assimilate they would give us a valuable lead in the 
matter of breaking down puritanism everywhere. For they are 
the licence-holders and patentees of the closed system, the 
ethical response! Even our absurd food prohibitions and in- 
hibitions are copied from their melancholy priest-ridden rig- 
marole about flesh and fowl. Aye! We artists are not interested 
in policies but in values — this is our field of battle! If once we 
could loosen up, relax the terrible grip of the so-called King- 
dom of Heaven which has made the earth such a blood-soaked 
place, we might rediscover in sex the key to a metaphysical 
search which is our raison d'etre here below! If the closed system 
and the moral exclusiveness on divine right were relaxed a little 
what could we not do?" What indeed? But the good Balthazar 
smokes his Lakadif gloomily and shakes his shaggy head. I 
think of the black velvet sighs of Juliet and fall silent. I think 
of the soft white knosps — unopened flower-shapes — which 
decorate the tombs of Moslem women! The slack, soft insipid 
mansuetude of these females of the mind! No, clearly my his- 
tory is pretty weak. Islam also libs as the Pope does. 

Brother Ass, let us trace the progress of the European artist 
from problem-child to case-history, from case-history to cry- 
baby! He has kept the psyche of Europe alive by his ability to 
be wrong, by his continual cowardice — this is his function! 
Cry-baby of the Western World! Cry-babies of the world 
unite! But let me hasten to add, lest this sounds cynical or 
despairing, that I am full of hope. For always, at every moment 
of time, there is a chance that the artist will stumble upon 
what I can only call The Great Inkling! Whenever this happens 
he is at once free to enjoy his fecundating role; but it can never 

J 39 



really happen as fully and completely as it deserves until the 
miracle comes about — the miracle of Pursewarden's Ideal 
Commonwealth! Yes, I believe in this miracle. Our very 
existence as artists affirms it! It is the act of yea-saying about 
which the old poet of the city speaks in a poem you once 
showed me in translation.* The fact of an artist being born 
affirms and reaffirms this in every generation. The miracle is 
there, on ict so to speak. One fine day it will blossom: then the 
artist suddenly grows up and accepts the full responsibility for 
his origins in the people, and when simultaneously the people 
recognise his peculiar significance and value, and greet him as 
the unborn child in themselves, the infant Joy! I am certain it 
will come. At the moment they are like wrestlers nervously 
circling one another, looking for a hold. But when it comes, 
this great blinding second of illumination — only then shall we 
be able to dispense with hierarchy as a social form. The new 
society — so different from anything we can imagine now — will 
be born around the small strict white temple of the infant Joy! 
Men and women will group themselves around it, the proto- 
plasmic growth of the village, the town, the capital! Nothing 
stands in the way of this Ideal Commonwealth, save that in 
every generation the vanity and laziness of the artist has always 
matched the self-indulgent blindness of the people. But prepare, 
prepare! It is on the way. It is here, there, nowhere! 

The great schools of love will arise, and sensual and intel- 
lectual knowledge will draw their impetus from each other. 
The human animal will be uncaged, all his dirty cultural straw 
and coprolitic refuse of belief cleaned out. And the human 
spirit, radiating light and laughter, will softly tread the green 
grass like a dancer; will emerge to cohabit with the time-forms 
and give children to the world of the elementaries — undines 
and salamanders, sylphs and sylvestres, Gnomi and Vulcani, 
angels and gnomes. 

Yes, to extend the range of physical sensuality to embrace 
mathematics and theology: to nourish not to stunt the in- 

140 



tuitions. For culture means sex, the root-knowledge, and where 
the faculty is derailed or crippled, its derivatives like religion 
come up dwarfed or contorted — instead of the emblematic 
mystic rose you get Judaic cauliflowers like Mormons or 
Vegetarians, instead of artists you get cry-babies, instead of 
philosophy semantics. 

The sexual and the creative energy go hand in hand. They 
convert into one another — the solar sexual and the lunar spiri- 
tual holding an eternal dialogue. They ride the spiral of time 
together. They embrace the whole of the human motive. The 
truth is only to be found in our own entrails — the truth of 
Time. 

"Copulation is the lyric of the mob!" Aye, and also the 
university of the soul: but a university at present without 
endowments, without books or even students. No, there are a 
few. 

How wonderful the death-struggle of Lawrence: to realise his 
sexual nature fully, to break free from the manacles of the Old 
Testament; flashing down through the firmament like a great 
white struggling man-fish, the last Christian martyr. His 
struggle is ours — to rescue Jesus from Moses. For a brief 
moment it looked possible, but St. Paul restored the balance 
and the iron handcuffs of the Judaic prison closed about the 
growing soul forever. Yet in The Man Who Died he tells us 
plainly what must be, what the reawakening of Jesus should 
have meant — the true birth of free man. Where is he? What has 
happened to him? Will he ever come? 

My spirit trembles with joy as I contemplate this city of 
light which a divine accident might create before our very eyes 
at any moment! Here art will find its true form and place, and 
the artist can play like a fountain without contention, without 
even trying. For I see art more and more clearly as a sort of 
manuring of the psyche. It has no intention, that is to say no 
theology. By nourishing the psyche, by dunging it up, it helps it 
to find its own level, like water. That level is an original inno- 

141 



cence — who invented the perversion of Original Sin, that 
filthy obscenity of the West? Art, like a skilled masseur on a 
playing-field, is always standing by to help deal with casualties; 
and just as a masseur does, its ministrations ease up the ten- 
sions of the psyche's musculature. That is why it always goes 
for the sore places, its fingers pressing upon the knotted muscles, 
the tendon afflicted with cramp — the sins, perversions, dis- 
pleasing points which we are reluctant to accept. Revealing 
them with its harsh kindness it unravels the tensions, relaxes 
the psyche. The other part of the work, if there is any other 
work, must belong to religion. Art is the purifying factor 
merely. It predicates nothing. It is the handmaid of silent con- 
tent, essential only to joy and to love! These strange beliefs, 
Brother Ass, you will find lurking under my mordant humours, 
which may be described simply as a technique of therapy. As 
Balthazar says: "A good doctor, and in a special sense the psy- 
chologist, makes it quite deliberately, slightly harder for the 
patient to recover too easily. You do this to see if his psyche has 
any real bounce in it, for the secret of healing is in the patient 
and not the doctor. The only measure is the reaction!' ' 

I was born under Jupiter, Hero of the Comic Mode! My 
poems, like soft music invading the encumbered senses of 
young lovers left alone at night. . . . What was I saying? Yes, 
the best thing to do with a great truth, as Rabelais discovered, 
is to bury it in a mountain of follies where it can comfortably 
wait for the picks and shovels of the elect. 

Between infinity and eternity stretches the thin hard tight- 
rope human beings must walk, joined at the waist! Do not let 
these unamiable propositions dismay you, Brother Ass. They 
are written down in pure joy, uncontaminated by a desire to 
preach! I am really writing for an audience of the blind — but 
aren't we all? Good art points, like a man too ill to speak, like a 
baby! But if instead of following the direction it indicates you 
take it for a thing in itself, having some sort of absolute value, 
or as a thesis upon something which can be paraphrased, surely 

142 



you miss the point; you lose yourself at once among the barren 
abstractions of the critic? Try to tell yourself that its funda- 
mental object was only to invoke the ultimate healing silence — 
and that the symbolism contained in form and pattern is only a 
frame of reference through which, as in a mirror, one may 
glimpse the idea of a universe at rest, a universe in love with 
itself. Then like a babe in arms you will "milk the universe at 
every breath"! We must learn to read between the lines, 
between the lives. 

Liza, used to say: "But its very perfection makes one sure that 
it will come to an end/' She was right; but women will not 
accept time and the dictates of the death-divining second. 
They do not see that a civilisation is simply a great metaphor 
which describes the aspirations of the individual soul in collec- 
tive form — as perhaps a novel or a poem might do. The 
struggle is always for greater consciousness. But alas! Civilisa- 
tions die in the measure that they become conscious of them- 
selves. They realise, they lose heart, the propulsion of the un- 
conscious motive is no longer there. Desperately they begin to 
copy themselves in the mirror. It is no use. But surely there is a 
catch in all this? Yes, Time is the catch! Space is a concrete 
idea, but Time is abstract. In the scar tissue of Proust's great 
poem you see that so clearly; his work is the great academy of 
the time-consciousness. But being unwilling to mobilise the 
meaning of time he was driven to fall back on memory, the 
ancestor of hope! 

Ah! but being a Jew he had hope — and with Hope comes the 
irresistible desire to meddle. Now we Celts mate with despair 
out of which alone grows laughter and the desperate romance 
of the eternally hopeless. We hunt the attainless, and for us 
there is only a search unending. 

For him it would mean nothing, my phrase "the prolongation 
of childhood into art". Brother Ass, the diving-board, the 
trapeze, lie just to the eastward of this position! A leap through 
the firmament to a new status — only don't miss the ring! 

143 



Why for example don't they recognise in Jesus the great 
Ironist that he is, the comedian? I am sure that two-thirds of 
the Beatitudes are jokes or squibs in the manner of Chuang Tzu. 
Generations of mystagogues and pedants have lost the sense. I 
am sure of it however because he must have known that Truth 
disappears with the telling of it. It can only be conveyed, not 
stated; irony alone is the weapon for such a task. 

Or let us turn to another aspect of the thing; it was you, just 
a moment ago, who mentioned our poverty of observation in 
all that concerns each other — the limitations of sight itself. 
Bravely spoken! But translated spiritually you get the picture 
of a man walking about the house, hunting for the spectacles 
which are on his forehead. To see is to imagine! And what, 
Brother Ass, could be a better illustration than your manner of 
seeing Justine, fitfully lit up in the electric signs of the 
imagination? It is not the same woman evidently who set about 
besieging me and who was finally driven off by my sardonic 
laughter. What you saw as soft and appealing in her seemed to 
me a specially calculated hardness, not which she invented, but 
which you evoked in her. All that throaty chatter, the compul- 
sion to exteriorise hysteria, reminded me of a feverish patient 
plucking at a sheet! The violent necessity to incriminate life, to 
explain her soul-states, reminded me of a mendicant soliciting 
pity by a nice exhibition of sores. Mentally she always had me 
scratching myself! Yet there was much to admire in her and I 
indulged my curiosity in exploring the outlines of her character 
with some sympathy — the configurations of an unhappiness 
which was genuine, though it always smelt of grease paint! The 
child, for example! 

"I found it, of course. Or rather Mnemjian did. In a 
brothel. It died from something, perhaps meningitis. Darley 
and Nessim came and dragged me away. All of a sudden I 
realised that I could not bear to find it; all the time I hunted I 
lived on the hope of finding it. But this thing, once dead, 
seemed suddenly to deprive me of all purpose. I recognised it, 

144 



but my inner mind kept crying out that it was not true, 
refusing to let me recognise it, even though I already had 
consciously done so!" 

The mixture of conflicting emotions was so interesting that I 
jotted them down in my notebook between a poem and a recipe 
for angel bread which I got from El Kalef. Tabulated thus: 

1. Relief at end of search. 

2. Despair at end of search; no further motive force in life. 

3. Horror at death. 

4. Relief at death. What future possible for it? 

5. Intense shame (don't understand this). 

6. Sudden desire to continue search uselessly rather than 

admit truth. 

7. Preferred to continue to feed on false hopes! 

A bewildering collection of fragments to leave among the 
analects of a moribund poet! But here was the point I was 
trying to make. She said: "Of course neither Nessim nor Darley 
noticed anything. Men are so stupid, they never do. I would 
have been able to forget it even perhaps, and dream that I had 
never really discovered it, but for Mnemjian, who wanted the 
reward, and was so convinced of the truth of his case that he 
made a great row. There was some talk of an autopsy by Bal- 
thazar. I was foolish enough to go to his clinic and offer to 
bribe him to say it was not my child. He was pretty astonished. 
I wanted him to deny a truth which I so perfectly knew to be 
true, so that I should not have to change my outlook. I would not be 
deprived of my sorrow, if you like; I wanted it to go on — to go 
on passionately searching for what I did not dare to find. I even 
frightened Nessim and incurred his suspicions with my antics 
over his private safe. So the matter passed off, and for a long 
time I still went on automatically searching until underneath I 
could stand the strain of the truth and come to terms with it. I 
see it so clearly, the divan, the tenement." 

Here she put on her most beautiful expression, which was 
one of intense sadness, and put her hands upon her breasts. 

H5 



Shall I tell you something? I suspected her of lying; it was an un- 
worthy thought but then ... I am an unworthy person. 
I: "Have you ever been back to the place?" 
She: "No. I have often wanted to, but did not dare." She 
shuddered a little. "In my memory I have become attached to 
that old divan. It must be knocking about somewhere. You see, 
I am still half convinced it was all a dream." 

At once I took up my pipe, violin and deerstalker like a 
veritable Sherlock. I have always been a X-marks-the-spot man. 
"Let us go and revisit it," I said briskly. At the worst, I 
thought, such a visitation would be cathartic. It was in fact a 
supremely practical thing to suggest, and to my surprise she at 
once rose and put on her coat. We walked silently down 
through the western edges of the town, arm in arm. 

There was some kind of festival going on in the Arab town 
which was blazing with electric light and flags. Motionless sea, 
small high clouds, and a moon like a disapproving archiman- 
drite or another faith. Smell of fish, cardamon seed and frying 
entrails packed with cummin and garlic. The air was full of 
the noise of mandolines scratching their little souls out on the 
night, as if afflicted with fleas — scratching scratching until the 
blood came on the lice-intoxicated night! The air was heavy. 
Each breath invisibly perforated it. You felt it come in and out 
of the lungs as if in a leather bellows. Eheu! It was grisly all 
that light and noise, I thought. And they talk of the romance of 
the East! Give me the Metropole at Brighton any day! We 
traversed this sector of light with quick deliberate step. She 
walked unerringly, head bent, deep in thought. Then gradually 
the streets grew darker, faded into the violet of darkness, be- 
came narrower, twisted and turned. At last we came to a great 
empty space with starlight. A dim great barrack of a building. 
She moved slowly now, with less certainty, hunting for a door. 
In a whisper she said "This place is run by old Mettrawi. He 
is bedridden. The door is always open. But he hears everything 
from his bed. Take my hand." I was never a great fire-eater and 

146 



I must confess to a certain uneasiness as we walked into this 
bandage of total blackness. Her hand was firm and cool, her 
voice precise, unmarked by any range of emphasis, betraying 
neither excitement nor fear. I thought I heard the scurrying of 
immense rats in the rotten structure around me, the very 
rafters of night itself. (Once in a thunderstorm among the 
ruins I had seen their fat wet glittering bodies flash here and 
there as they feasted on garbage.) " Please God, remember that 
even though I am an English poet I do not deserve to be eaten 
by rats" I prayed silently. We had started to walk down a long 
corridor of blackness with the rotten wooden boards creaking 
under us; here and there was one missing, and I wondered if we 
were not walking over the bottomless pit itself! The air smelt 
of wet ashes and that unmistakable odour of black flesh when 
it is sweating. It is quite different from white flesh. It is dense, 
foetid, like the lion's cage at the Zoo. The Darkness itself was 
sweating — and why not? The Darkness must wear Othello's 
skin. Always a timorous fellow, I suddenly wanted to go to the 
lavatory but I crushed the thought like a blackbeetle. Let my 
bladder wait. On we went, and round two sides of a . . ♦ piece 
of darkness floored with rotten boards. Then suddenly she 
whispered: "I think we are there!" and pushed open a door 
upon another piece of impenetrable darkness. But it was a 
room of some size for the air was cool. One felt the space 
though one could see nothing whatsoever. We both inhaled 
deeply. 

"Yes" she whispered thoughtfully and, groping in her velvet 
handbag for a box of matches, hesitantly struck one. It was a 
tall room, so tall that it was roofed by darkness despite the 
yellow flapping of the match-flame; one huge shattered window 
faintly reflected starlight. The walls were of verdigris, the 
plaster peeling everywhere, and their only decoration was the 
imprint of little blue hands which ran round the four walls in a 
haphazard pattern. As if a lot of pygmies had gone mad with 
blue paint and then galloped all over the walls standing on 

H7 



their hands! To the left, a little off centre, reposed a large 
gloomy divan, floating upon the gloom like a Viking catafalque; 
it was a twice-chewed relic of some Ottoman calif, riddled with 
holes. The match went out. "There it is" she said and putting 
the box into my hand she left my side. When I lit up again she 
was sitting beside the divan with her cheek resting upon it, 
softly stroking it with the palm of her hand. She was com- 
pletely composed. She stroked it with a calm voluptuous ges- 
ture and then crossed her paws on it, reminding me of a lioness 
sitting astride its lunch. The moment had a kind of weird ten- 
sion, but this was not reflected on her face. (Human beings are 
like pipe-organs, I thought. You pull out a stop marked 
" Lover' ' or " Mother" and the requisite emotions are un- 
leashed — tears or sighs or endearments. Sometimes I try and 
think of us all as habit-patterns rather than human beings. I 
mean, wasn't the idea of the individual soul grafted on us by 
the Greeks in the wild hope that, by its sheer beauty, it would 
"take" — as we say of vaccination? That we might grow up to 
the size of the concept and grow the heavenly flame in each of 
our hearts? Has it taken or hasn't it? Who can say? Some of us 
still have one, but how vestigial it seems. Perhaps. . . .) 

"They have heard us." 

Somewhere in the darkness there was a thin snarl of voice, 
and the silence became suddenly padded out with the scamper 
of feet upon rotted woodwork. In the expiring flicker of the 
match I saw, as if somewhere very far away, a bar of light — like 
a distant furnace door opening in heaven. And voices now, the 
voices of ants! The children came through a sort of hatch or 
trap-door made of darkness, in their cotton nightgowns, 
absurdly farded. With rings on their fingers and bells on their 
toes. She shall have music wherever she goes! One of them car- 
ried a waxlight floating in a saucer. They twanged nasally about 
us, interrogating our needs with blasting frankness — but they 
were surprised to see Justine sitting beside the Viking cata- 
falque, her head (now smiling) half turned towards them. 

148 



"I think we should leave" I said in a low voice, for they 
smelt dreadfully these tiny apparitions, and they showed a dis- 
agreeable tendency to twine their skinny arms about my waist 
as they wheedled and intoned. But Justine turned to one and 
said: ' 'Bring the light here, where we can all see/' And when 
the light was brought she suddenly turned herself, crossed her 
legs under her, and in the high ringing tone of the street story- 
teller she intoned: "Now gather about me, all ye blessed of 
Allah, and hear the wonders of the story I shall tell you." The 
effect was electric; they settled about her like a pattern of dead 
leaves in a wind, crowding up close together. Some even 
climbed on to the old divan, chuckling and nudging with 
delight. And in the same rich triumphant voice, saturated with 
unshed tears, Justine began again in the voice of the profes- 
sional story-teller: "Ah, listen to me, all ye true believers, and 
I will unfold to you the story of Yuna and Aziz, of their great 
many-petalled love, and of the mishaps which befell them from 
the doing of Abu Ali Saraq el-Maza. In those days of the great 
Califate, when many heads fell and armies marched. . . ." 

It was a wild sort of poetry for the place and the time — the 
little circle of wizened faces, the divan, the flopping light; and 
the strangely captivating lilt of the Arabic with its heavy 
damascened imagery, the thick brocade of alliterative repeti- 
tions, the nasal twanging accents, gave it a laic splendour which 
brought tears to my eyes — gluttonous tears! It was such a rich 
diet for the soul! It made me aware how thin the fare is which 
we moderns supply to our hungry readers. The epic contours, 
that is what her story had! I was envious. How rich these beggar 
children were. And I was envious too of her audience. Talk of 
suspended judgement! They sank into the imagery of her story 
like plummets. One saw, creeping out like mice, their true 
souls — creeping out upon those painted masks in little expres- 
sions of wonder, suspense and joy. In that yellow gloaming they 
were expressions of a terrible truth. You saw how they would be 
in middle age — the witch, the good wife, the gossip, the shrew. 

149 



The poetry had stripped them to the bone and left only their 
natural selves to flower thus in expressions faithfully por- 
traying their tiny stunted spirits! 

How could I help but admire her for giving me one of the 
most significant and memorable moments of a writer's life? I 
put my arm about her shoulders and sat, as rapt as any of them, 
following the long sinuous curves of the immortal story as it 
unfolded before our eyes. 

They could hardly bear to part with us when at last the story 
came to an end. They clung to her, pleading for more. Some 
picked the hem of her skirt and kissed it in an agony of plead- 
ing. "There is no time" she said, smiling calmly. "But I will 
come again, my little ones." They hardly heeded the money 
she distributed but thronged after us along the dark corridors 
to the blackness of the square. At the corner I looked back but 
could only see the flicker of shadows. They said farewell in 
voices of heartbreaking sweetness. We walked in deep con- 
tented silence across the shattered, time-corrupted town until 
we reached the cool seafront; and stood for a long time leaning 
upon the cold stone piers above the sea, smoking and saying 
nothing! At last she turned to me a face of tremendous weari- 
ness and whispered: "Take me home, now. I'm dead tired." And 
so we hailed a pottering gharry and swung along the Corniche as 
sedately as bankers after a congress. "I suppose we are all hunt- 
ing for the secrets of growth!" was all she said as we parted. 

It was a strange remark to make at parting. I watched her 
walk wearily up the steps to the great house groping for her key. 
I still felt drunk with the story of Yuna and Aziz! 

Brother Ass, it is a pity that you will never have a chance to 
read all this tedious rigmarole; it would amuse me to study 
your puzzled expression as you did so. Why should the artist 
always be trying to saturate the world with his own anguish, 
you asked me once. Why indeed? I will give you another 
phrase: emotional gongorism! I have always been good at 
polite phrase-making. 

150 



Loneliness and desire. 

Lord of the Flies, 

Are thy unholy empire and 

The self's inmost surprise! 

Come to these arms, my dear old Dutch 

And firmly bar the door 

I could not love thee, dear, so much 

Loved I not ******* more! 

And later, aimlessly walking, who should I encounter but the 
slightly titubating Pombal just back from the Casino with a 
chamber-pot full of paper money and a raging thirst for a last 
beaker of champagne which we took together at the fitoile. It 
was strange that I had no taste for a girl that night; somehow 
Yuna and Aziz had barred the way. Instead I straggled back to 
Mount Vulture with a bottle in my mackintosh pocket, to 
confront once more the ill-starred pages of my book which, 
twenty years from now, will be the cause of many a thrashing 
among the lower forms of our schools. It seemed a disastrous 
sort of gift to be offering to the generations as yet unborn; I 
would rather have left them something like Yuna and Aziz, but 
it hasn't been possible since Chaucer; the sophistication of the 
laic audience is perhaps to blame? The thought of all those 
smarting little bottoms made me close my notebooks with a 
series of ill-tempered snaps. Champagne is a wonderfully 
soothing drink, however, and prevented me from being too 
cast-down. Then I stumbled upon the little note which you, 
Brother Ass, had pushed under the door earlier in the evening: 
a note which complimented me on the new series of poems 
which the Anvil was producing (a misprint per line); and 
writers being what they are I thought most kindly of you, I 
raised my glass to you. In my eyes you had become a critic of 
the purest discernment; and once more I asked myself in exas- 
perated tones why the devil I had never wasted more time on 
you? It was really remiss of me. And falling asleep I made a 

151 



mental note to take you to dinner the next evening and talk 
your jackass's head off— about writing, of course, what else? 
Ah! but that is the point. Once a writer seldom a talker; I knew 
that, speechless as Goldsmith, I should sit hugging my hands 
in my armpits while you did the talking! 

In my sleep I dug up a mummy with poppy-coloured lips, 
dressed in the long white wedding dress of the Arab sugar- 
dolls. She smiled but would not awake, though I kissed her and 
talked to her persuasively. Once her eyes half opened; but they 
closed again and she lapsed back into smiling sleep. I whispered 
her name which was Yuna, but which had unaccountably be- 
come Liza. And as it was no use I interred her once more 
among the shifting dunes where (the wind-shapes were changing 
fast) there would be no trace remaining of the spot. At dawn I 
woke early and took a gharry down to the Rushdi beach to 
cleanse myself in the dawn-sea. There was not a soul about at 
that time save Clea, who was on the far beach in a blue 
bathing-costume, her marvellous hair swinging about her like a 
blonde Botticelli. I waved and she waved back, but showed no 
inclination to come and talk which made me grateful. We lay, 
a thousand yards apart, smoking and wet as seals. I thought for 
an instant of the lovely burnt coffee of her summer flesh, with 
the little hairs on her temples bleached to ash. I inhaled her 
metaphorically, like a whiff of roasting coffee, dreaming of the 
white thighs with those small blue veins in them! Well, well 
. . . she would have been worth taking trouble over had she not 
been so beautiful. That brilliant glance exposed everything and 
forced me to take shelter from her. 

One could hardly ask her to bandage them in order to be 
made love to! And yet . . . like the black silk stockings some 
men insist on! Two sentences ending with a preposition! 
What is poor Purse warden coming to? 

His prose created grievous lusts 
Among the middle classes 
152 



His propositions were decried 
As dangerous for the masses 

His major works were classified 
Among the noxious gases 

England awake! 

Brother Ass, the so-called act of living is really an act of the 
imagination. The world — which we always visualise as "the 
outside' ' World — yields only to self-exploration! Faced by this 
cruel, yet necessary paradox, the poet finds himself growing 
gills and a tail, the better to swim against the currents of unen- 
lightenment. What appears to be perhaps an arbitrary act of 
violence is precisely the opposite, for by reversing process in 
this way, he unites the rushing, heedless stream of humanity to 
the still, tranquil, motionless, odourless, tasteless plenum from 
which its own motive essence is derived. (Yes, but it hurts to 
realise!) If he were to abandon his role all hope of gaining a 
purchase on the slippery surface of reality would be lost, and 
everything in nature would disappear! But this act, the poetic 
act, will cease to be necessary when everyone can perform it for 
himself. What hinders them, you ask? Well, we are all natur- 
ally afraid to surrender our own pitifully rationalised morality 
— and the poetic jump I'm predicating lies the other side of it. It 
is only terrifying because we refuse to recognise in ourselves the 
horrible gargoyles which decorate the totem poles of our 
churches — murderers, liars, adulterers and so on. (Once recog- 
nised, these papier-mache' masks fade.) Whoever makes this 
enigmatic leap into the heraldic reality of the poetic life dis- 
covers that truth has its own built-in morality! There is no 
need to wear a truss any longer. Inside the penumbra of this sort 
of truth morality can be disregarded because it is a donnee, a part 
of the thing, and not simply a brake, an inhibition. It is there 
to be lived out and not thought out! Ah, Brother Ass, this will 
seem a far cry to the "purely literary' ' preoccupations which 

153 



beset you; yet unless you tackle this corner of the field with 
your sickle you will never reap the harvest in yourself, and so 
fulfil your true function here below. 

But how? you ask me plaintively. And truly here you have me 
by the short hairs, for the thing operates differently with each 
one of us. I am only suggesting that you have not become des- 
perate enough, determined enough. Somewhere at the heart of 
things you are still lazy of spirit. But then, why struggle? If it is 
to happen to you it will happen of its own accord. You may be 
quite right to hang about like this, waiting. I was too proud. I 
felt I must take it by the horns, this vital question of my birth- 
right. For me it was grounded in an act of will. So for people 
like me I would say: " Force the lock, batter down the door. 
Outface, defy, disprove the Oracle in order to become the poet, 
the darer!" 

But I am aware the test may come under any guise, perhaps 
even in the physical world by a blow between the eyes or a few 
lines scribbled in pencil on the back of an envelope left in a 
cafe\ The heraldic reality can strike from any point, above or 
below: it is not particular. But without it the enigma will 
remain. You may travel round the world and colonise the ends 
of the earth with your lines and yet never hear the singing 
yourself. 



154 



Ill 



I found myself reading these passages from Pursewarden's 
notebooks with all the attention and amusement they 
deserved, and without any thought of "exoneration" — 
to use the phrase of Clea. On the contrary, it seemed to 
me that his observation was not lacking in accuracy and what- 
ever whips and scorpions he had applied to my image were well 
justified. It is, moreover, useful as well as salutary to see one- 
self portrayed with such blistering candour by someone one 
admires! Yet I was a trifle surprised not to feel even a little 
wounded in my self-esteem. Not only were no bones broken, 
but at times, chuckling aloud at his sallies, I found myself 
addressing him under my breath as if he were actually present 
before me, uttering rather than writing down these unpalatable 
home-truths. "You bastard" I said under my breath. "You just 
wait a little bit." Almost as if one day I might right the 
reckoning with him, pay off the score! It was troubling to raise 
my head and realise suddenly that he had already stepped 
behind the curtains, vanished from the scene; he was so much 
of a presence, popping up everywhere, with the strange mixture 
of strengths and weaknesses which made up his enigmatic 
character. 

"What are you chuckling at?" said Telford, always anxious 
to share a jocose exchange of office wit provided it had the 
requisite moribund point. 

"A notebook." 

Telford was a large man draped in ill-cut clothes and a 
spotted blue bow tie. His complexion was blotchy and of the 
kind which tears easily under a razor-blade; consequently there 
was always a small tuft of cotton wool sticking to chin or ear, 
stanching a wound. Always voluble and bursting with the 

155 



wrong sort of expansive bonhomie he gave the impression of being 
at war with his dentures, which were ill-fitting. He gobbled 
and gasped, biting on loose stoppings, or swallowing a soft 
palate, gasping like a fish as he uttered his pleasantries or 
laughed at his own jokes like a man riding a bone-shaker, his 
top set of teeth bumping up and down on his gums. "I say, old 
fruit, that was rich" he would exclaim. I did not find him too 
disagreeable an inmate of the office which we shared at the 
censorship, for the work was not exacting and he, as an old 
hand, was always ready to give me advice or help with it; I 
enjoyed too his obstinately recurring stories of the mythical 
"old days", when he, Little Tommy Telford, had been a per- 
sonage of great importance, second only in rank and power to 
the great Maskelyne, our present Chief. He always referred to 
him as "The Brig", and made it very clear that the department, 
which had once been Arab Bureau, had seen better times, had in 
fact been downgraded to a mere censorship department dealing 
with the ebb and flow of civilian correspondence over the 
Middle East. A menial role compared to "Espionage" which he 
pronounced in four separate syllables. 

Stories of this ancient glory, which had now faded beyond 
recall, formed part of the Homeric Cycle, so to speak, of office 
life: to be recited wistfully during intervals between snatches of 
work or on afternoons when some small mishap like a broken 
fan had made concentration in those airless buildings all but 
impossible. It was from Telford that I learned of the long inter- 
necine struggle between Pursewarden and Maskelyne — a 
struggle which was, in a sense, continuing on another plane 
between the silent Brigadier and Mountolive, for Maskelyne 
was desperately anxious to rejoin his regiment and shed his 
civilian suit. This desire had been baulked. Mountolive, ex- 
plained Telford with many a gusty sigh (waving chapped and 
podgy hands which were stuffed with bluish clusters of veins 
like plums in a cake) — Mountolive had "got at" the War 
Office and persuaded them not to countenance Maskelyne's 

i 5 6 



resignation. I must say the Brigadier, whom I saw perhaps twice 
a week, did convey an impression of sullen, saturnine fury at 
being penned up in a civilian department while so much was 
going on in the desert, but of course any regular soldier would. 
"You see" said Telford ingenuously, "when a war comes along 
there's bags of promotion, old thing, bags of it. The Brig has a 
right to think of his career like any other man. It is different 
for us. We were born civilians, so to speak/' He himself had 
spent many years in the currant trade in the Eastern Levant 
residing in places like Zante and Patras. His reasons for coming 
to Egypt were obscure. Perhaps he found life more congenial in 
a large British colony. Mrs. Telford was a fattish little duck 
who used mauve lipstick and wore hats like pincushions. She 
only appeared to live for an invitation to the Embassy on the 
King's birthday. ("Mavis loves her little official 'do', she does.") 

But if the administrative war with Mountolive was so far 
empty of victory there were consolations, said Telford, from 
which the Brig could derive a studied enjoyment: for Mount- 
olive was very much in the same boat. This made him (Telford) 
"chortle" — a characteristic phrase which he often used. 
Mountolive, it seemed, was no less eager to abandon his post, 
and had indeed applied several times for a transfer from Egypt. 
Unluckily, however, the war had intervened with its policy of 
"freezing personnel" and Kenilworth, no friend of the Am- 
bassador, had been sent out to execute this policy. If the 
Brigadier was pinned down by the intrigues of Mountolive, the 
latter had been pinned down just as certainly by the newly 
appointed Personnel Adviser — pinned down "for the dura- 
tion"! Telford rubbed unctuous hands as he retailed all this to 
me! "It's a case of the biter bit all right" he said. "And if you 
ask me the Brig will manage to get away sooner than Sir David. 
Mark my words, old fruit." A single solemn nod was enough 
to satisfy him that his point had been taken. 

Telford and Maskelyne were united by a curious sort of 
bond which intrigued me. The solitary monosyllabic soldier 

157 



and the effusive bagman — what on earth could they have had in 
common? (Their very names on the printed duty rosters irresist- 
ibly suggested a music-hall team or a firm of respectable under- 
takers!) Yet I think the bond was one of admiration, for Tel- 
ford behaved with a grotesque wonder and respect when in the 
presence of his Chief, fussing around him anxiously, eagerly, 
longing to anticipate his commands and so earn a word of com- 
mendation. His heavily salivated "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" 
popped out from between his dentures with the senseless regu- 
larity of cuckoos from a clock. Curiously enough there was 
nothing feigned in this sycophancy. It was in fact something 
like an administrative love-affair, for even when Maskelyne was 
not present Telford spoke of him with the greatest possible 
reverence, the profoundest hero-worship — compounded equally 
of social admiration for his rank and deep respect for his charac- 
ter and judgement. Out of curiosity I tried to see Maskelyne 
through my colleague's eyes but failed to discern more than a 
rather bleak and well-bred soldier of narrow capacities and a 
clipped world-weary public school accent. Yet . . . "The Brig 
is a real cast-iron gentleman" Telford would say with an 
emotion so great that it almost brought tears to his eyes. "He's 
as straight as string, is the old Brig. Never stoop to do anything 
beneath him." It was perhaps true, yet it did not make our 
Chief less unremarkable in my eyes. 

Telford had several little menial duties which he himself had 
elected to perform for his hero — for example, to buy the week- 
old Daily Telegraph and place it on the great man's desk each 
morning. He adopted a curious finicky walk as he crossed the 
polished floor of Maskelyne's empty office (for we arrived early 
at work): almost as if he were afraid of leaving footprints behind 
him. He positively stole across to the desk. And the tenderness 
with which he folded the paper and ran his fingers down the 
creases before laying it reverently on the green blotter reminded 
me of a woman handling a husband's newly starched and 
ironed shirt. 

i 5 8 



Nor was the Brigadier himself unwilling to accept the burden 
of this guileless admiration. I imagine few men could resist it. 
At first I was puzzled by the fact that once or twice a week he 
would visit us, clearly with no special matter in mind, and 
would take a slow turn up and down between our desks, occa- 
sionally uttering an informal monochrome pleasantry — in- 
dicating the recipient of it by pointing the stem of his pipe at 
him lightly, almost shyly. Yet throughout these visitations his 
swarthy greyhound's face, with its small crowsfeet under the 
eyes t never altered its expression, his voice never lost its studied 
inflections. At first, as I say, these appearances somewhat 
puzzled me, for Maskelyne was anything but a convivial soul 
and could seldom talk of anything but the work in hand. Then 
one day I detected, in the slow elaborate figure he traced be- 
tween our desks, the traces of an unconscious coquetry — I was 
reminded of the way a peacock spreads its great studded fan of 
eyes before the female, or of the way a mannequin wheels in an 
arabesque designed to show off the clothes she is wearing. 
Maskelyne had in fact simply come to be admired, to spread 
out the riches of his character and breeding before Telford. 
Was it possible that this easy conquest provided him with some 
inner assurance he lacked? It would be hard to say. Yet he was 
inwardly basking in his colleague's wide-eyed admiration. I am 
sure it was quite unconscious — this gesture of a lonely man 
towards the only whole-hearted admirer he had as yet won from 
the world. From his own side, however, he could only recipro- 
cate with the condescension bred by his education. Secretly he 
held Telford in contempt for not being a gentleman. "Poor 
Telford" he would be heard to sigh when out of the other's 
hearing. "Poor Telford". The commiserating fall of the voice 
suggested pity for someone who was worthy but hopelessly 
uninspired. 

These, then, were my office familiars during the whole of 
that first wearing summer, and their companionship offered me 
no problem. The work left me easy and untroubled in mind. 

x 59 



My ranking was a humble one and carried with it no social 
obligations whatsoever. For the rest we did not frequent each 
other outside the office. Telford lived somewhere near Rushdi 
in a small suburban villa, outside the centre of the town, while 
Maskelyne seldom appeared to stir from the gaunt bedroom on 
the top floor of the Cecil. Once free from the office, therefore, I 
felt able to throw it off completely and once more resume the 
life of the town, or what was left of it. 

With Clea also the new relationship offered no problems, 
perhaps because deliberately we avoided defining it too sharply, 
and allowed it to follow the curves of its own nature, to fulfil 
its own design. I did not, for example, always stay at her flat — 
for sometimes when she was working on a picture she would 
plead for a few days of complete solitude and seclusion in order 
to come to grips with her subject, and these intermittent inter- 
vals, sometimes of a week or more, sharpened and refreshed 
affection without harming it. Sometimes, however, after such a 
compact we would stumble upon each other by accident and 
out of weakness resume the suspended relationship before the 
promised three days or a week was up! It wasn't easy. 

Sometimes at evening I might come upon her sitting absently 
alone on the little painted wooden terrace of the Cafe" Baudrot, 
gazing into space. Her sketching blocks lay before her, un- 
opened. Sitting there as still as a coney, she had forgotten to 
remove from her lips the tiny moustache of cream from her cafe 
viennoisl At such a moment it needed all my self-possession not 
to vault the wooden balustrade and put my arms round her, so 
vividly did this touching detail seem to light up the memory of 
her; so childish and serene did she look. The loyal and ardent 
image of Clea the lover rose up before my eyes and all at once 
separation seemed unendurable! Conversely I might suddenly 
(sitting on a bench in a public garden, reading) feel cool hands 
pressed over my eyes and turn suddenly to embrace her and in- 
hale once more the fragrance of her body through her crisp 
summer frock. At other times, and very often at moments when 

160 



I was actually thinking of her, she would walk miraculously 
into the flat saying: "I felt you calling me to come" or else "It 
suddenly came over me to need you very much/' So these en- 
counters had a breathless sharp sweetness, unexpectedly re- 
igniting our ardour. It was as if we had been separated for years 
instead of days. 

This self-possession in the matter of planned absences from 
each other struck a spark of admiration from Pombal, who 
could no more achieve the same measure in his relations with 
Fosca than climb to the moon. He appeared to wake in the 
morning with her name on his lips. His first act was to tele- 
phone her anxiously to find out if she were well — as if her ab- 
sence had exposed her to terrible unknown dangers. His official 
day with its various duties was a torment. He positively gal- 
loped home to lunch in order to see her again. In all justice I 
must say that his attachment was fully reciprocated for all that 
their relationship was like that of two elderly retired pensioners 
in its purity. If he were kept late at an official dinner she would 
work herself into a fever of apprehension. ("No, it is not his 
fidelity that worries me, it is his safety. He drives so carelessly, 
as you know/') Fortunately during this period the nightly 
bombardment of the harbour acted upon social activities almost 
like a curfew, so that it was possible to spend almost every 
evening together, playing chess or cards, or reading aloud. 
Fosca I found to be a thoughtful, almost intense young woman, 
a little lacking in humour but devoid of the priggishness which 
I had been inclined to suspect from Pombal/ s own description of 
her when first we met. She had a keen and mobile face whose 
premature wrinkles suggested that perhaps she had been 
marked by her experiences as a refugee. She never laughed 
aloud, and her smile had a touch of reflective sadness in it. But 
she was wise, and always had a spirited and thoughtful answer 
ready — indeed the quality of esprit which the French so rightly 
prize in a woman. The fact that she was nearing the term of her 
pregnancy only seemed to make Pombal more attentive and 

161 



adoring — indeed he behaved with something like complacence 
about the child. Or was he simply trying to suggest that it was 
his own: as a show of face to a world which might think that he 
was "unmanned"? I could not decide. In the summer afternoons 
he would float about the harbour in his cutter while Fosca sat in 
the stern trailing one white hand in the sea. Sometimes she sang 
for him in a small true voice like a bird's. This transported him, 
and he wore the look of a good bourgeois papa defamille as he beat 
time with his finger. At night they sat out the bombardment 
for preference over a chess board — a somewhat singular choice; 
but as the infernal racket of gunfire gave him nervous head- 
aches he had skilfully constructed ear plugs for them both by 
cutting the filter- tips from cigarettes. So they were able to sit, 
concentrating in silence! 

But once or twice this peaceful harmony was overshadowed 
by outside events which provoked doubts and misgivings under- 
standable enough in a relationship which was so nebulous — I 
mean so much discussed and anatomised and not acted out. One 
day I found him padding about in a dressing-gown and slippers 
looking suspiciously distraught, even a little red-eyed. "Ah, 
Darley!" he sighed gustily, falling into his gout chair and 
catching his beard in his fingers as if he were about to dismantle 
it completely. "We will never understand them, never. Women! 
What bad luck. Perhaps I am just stupid. Fosca! Her husband!" 

"He has been killed?" I asked. 

Pombal shook his head sadly. "No. Taken prisoner and sent 
to Germany." 

"Well why the fuss?" 

"I am ashamed, that is all. I did not fully realise until this 
news came, neither did she, that we were really expecting him to 
be killed. Unconsciously, of course. Now she is full of self 
disgust. But the whole plan for our lives was unconsciously built 
upon the notion of him surrendering his own. It is monstrous. 
His death would have freed us; but now the whole problem is 
deferred perhaps for years, perhaps forever. ..." 

162 



He looked quite distracted and fanned himself with a news- 
paper, muttering under his breath. ' 'Things take the strangest 
turns" he went on at last. "For if Fosca is too honourable to 
confess the truth to him while he is at the front, she would 
equally never do it to a poor prisoner. I left her in tears. Every- 
thing is put off till the end of the war," 

He ground his back teeth together and sat staring at me. It 
was difficult to know what one could say by way of consolation. 

"Why doesn't she write and tell him?" 

"Impossible! Too cruel. And with the child coming on? 
Even I, Pombal, would not wish her to do such a thing. Never. 
I found her in tears, my friend, holding" the telegram. She said 
in tones of anguish: 'O Georges-Gaston for the first time I feel 
ashamed of my love, when I realise that we were wishing him to 
die rather than get captured this way.' It may sound compli- 
cated to you, but her emotions are so fine, her sense of honour 
and pride and so on. Then a queer thing happened. So great was 
our mutual pain that in trying to console her I slipped and we 
began to make real love without noticing it. It is a strange 
picture. And not an easy operation. Then when we came to our- 
selves she began to cry all over again and said: 'Now for the 
first time I have a feeling of hate for you, Georges-Gaston, be- 
cause now our love is on the same plane as everyone else's. We 
have cheapened it.' Women always put you in the wrong some- 
how. I was so full of joy to have at last. . . . Suddenly her words 
plunged me into despair. I rushed away. I have not seen her for 
jive hours. Perhaps this is the end of everything? Ah but it could 
have been the beginning of something which would at least 
sustain us until the whole problem sees the light of day." 

"Perhaps she is too stupid." 

Pombal was aghast. "How can you say that! All this comes 
from her exquisite finesse of spirit. That is all. Don't add to my 
misery by saying foolish things about one so fine." 

"Well, telephone her." 

"Her phone is out of order. Aie! It is worse than toothache. 

i6 3 



I have been toying with the idea of suicide for the first time in 
my life. That will show you to what a point I've been driven/ ' 

But at this moment the door opened and Fosca stepped into 
the room. She too had been crying. She stopped with a queer 
dignity and held out her hands to Pombal who gave an inarticu- 
late growling cry of delight and bounded across the room in his 
dressing-gown to embrace her passionately. Then he drew her 
into the circle of his arm and they went slowly down the corri- 
dor to his room together and locked themselves in. 

Later that evening I saw him coming down Rue Fuad 
towards me, beaming. ' 'Hurrah!" he shouted and threw his 
expensive hat high into the air. "Je suis tnfin la"! 

The hat described a large parabola and settled in the middle 
of the road where it was immediately run over by three cars in 
rapid succession. Pombal clasped his hands together and 
beamed as if the sight gave him the greatest joy. Then he turned 
his moon-face up into the sky as if searching for a sign or por- 
tent. As I came abreast of him he caught my hands and said: 
"Divine logic of women! Truly there is nothing so wonderful 
on earth as the sight of a woman thinking out her feelings. I 
adore it. I adore it. Our love. . . . Fosca! It is complete now. I 
am so astonished, truthfully, I am astonished, I would never have 
been able to think it out so accurately. Listen, she could not 
bring herself to deceive a man who was in hourly danger of 
death. Right. But now that he is safely behind bars it is differ- 
ent. We are free to normalise ourselves. We will not, of course, 
hurt him by telling him as yet. We will simply help ourselves 
from the pantry, as Pursewarden used to say. My dear friend, 
isn't it wonderful? Fosca is an angel.' ' 

"She sounds like a woman after all." 

"A Woman! The word, magnificent as it is, is hardly enough 
for a spirit like hers." 

He burst into a whinny of laughter and punched me affec- 
tionately on the shoulder. Together we walked down the long 
street. "I am going to Pierantoni to buy her an expensive 

164 



present ... I, who never give a woman presents, never in my 
life. It always seemed absurd. I once saw a film of penguins in 
the mating season. The male penguin, than which nothing 
could more ludicrously resemble man, collects stones and places 
them before the lady of his choice when he proposes. It must be 
seen to be appreciated. Now I am behaving like a male penguin. 
Never mind. Never mind. Now our story cannot help but have 
a happy ending." 

Fateful words which I have so often recalled since, for within 
a few months Fosca was to be a problem no more. 



165 



IV 



For some considerable time I heard nothing of Purse- 
warden's sister, though I knew that she was still up at 
the summer legation. As for Mountolive, his visits were 
recorded among the office memoranda, so that I knew 
he came up from Cairo for the night about every ten days. For 
a while I half expected a signal from him, but as time wore on 
I almost began to forget his existence as presumably he had 
forgotten mine. So it was that her voice, when first it floated 
over the office telephone, came as an unexpected intrusion — a 
surprise in a world where surprises were few and not unwel- 
come. A curiously disembodied voice which might have been 
that of uncertain adolescence, saying: "I think you know of me. 
As a friend of my brother I would like to talk to you." The 
invitation to dinner the following evening she described as 
' 'private, informal and unofficial" which suggested to me that 
Mountolive himself would be present. I felt the stirring of an 
unusual curiosity as I walked up the long drive with its very 
English hedges of box, and through the small coppice of pines 
which encircled the summer residence. It was an airless hot 
night — such as must presage the gathering of a khatnseen some- 
where in the desert which would later roll its dust clouds down 
the city's streets and squares like pillars of smoke. But as yet 
the night air was harsh and clear. 

I rang the bell twice without result, and was beginning to 
think that perhaps it might be out of order when I heard a soft 
swift step inside. The door opened and there stood Liza with an 
expression of triumphant eagerness on her blind face. I found 
her extraordinarily beautiful at first sight, though a little on the 
short side. She wore a dress of some dark soft stuff with a collar 
cut very wide, out of which her slender throat and head rose as 

166 



if out of the corolla of a flower. She stood before me with her 
face thrown upwards, forwards — with an air of spectral bravery 
— as if presenting her lovely neck to an invisible executioner. 
As I uttered my own name she smiled and nodded and repeated 
it back to me in a whisper tense as a thread. "Thank goodness, 
at last you have come" she said, as though she had lived in the 
expectation of my visit for years! As I stepped forward she 
added quickly "Please forgive me if I. ... It is my only way of 
knowing." And I suddenly felt her soft warm fingers on my 
face, moving swiftly over it as if spelling it out, I felt a stirring 
of some singular unease, composed of sensuality and disgust, as 
these expert fingers travelled over my cheeks and lips. Her 
hands were small and well-shaped; the fingers conveyed an 
extraordinary impression of delicacy, for they appeared to turn 
up slightly at the ends to present their white pads, like antennae, 
to the world. I had once seen a world-famous pianist with just 
such fingers, so sensitive that they appeared to grow into the 
keyboard as he touched it. She gave a small sigh, as if of relief, 
and taking me by the wrist drew me across the hall and into the 
living-room with its expensive and featureless official furniture 
where Mountolive stood in front of the fireplace with an air of 
uneasy concern. Somewhere a radio softly played. We shook 
hands and in his handclasp I felt something infirm, indecisive 
which was matched by the fugitive voice in which he excused 
his long silence. "I had to wait until Liza was ready" he said, 
rather mysteriously. 

Mountolive had changed a good deal, though he still bore all 
the marks of the superficial elegance which was a prerequisite 
for his work, and his clothes were fastidiously chosen — for even 
(I thought grimly) informal undress is still a uniform for a 
diplomat. His old kindness and attentiveness were still there. 
Yet he had aged. I noticed that he now needed reading-glasses, 
for they lay upon a copy of The Times beside the sofa. And he 
had grown a moustache which he did not trim and which had 
altered the shape of his mouth, and emphasised a certain finely 

167 



bred feebleness of feature. It did not seem possible to imagine 
him ever to have been in the grip of a passion strong enough to 
qualify the standard responses of an education so definitive as 
his. Nor now, looking from one to the other, could I credit the 
suspicions which Clea had voiced about his love for this strange 
blind witch who now sat upon the sofa staring sightlessly at me, 
with her hands folded in her lap — those rapacious, avaricious 
hands of a musician. Had she coiled herself, like a small hateful 
snake, at the centre of his peaceful life? I accepted a drink from 
his fingers and found, in the warmth of his smile, that I re- 
membered having liked and admired him. I did so still. 

"We have both been eager to see you, and particularly Liza, 
because she felt that you might be able to help her. But we will 
talk about all that later." And with an abrupt smoothness he 
turned away from the real subject of my visit to enquire 
whether my post pleased me, and whether I was happy in it. 
An exchange of courteous pleasantries which provoked the 
neutral answers appropriate to them. Yet here and there were 
gleams of new information. "Liza was quite determined you 
should stay here; and so we got busy to arrange it!" Why? 
Simply that I should submit to a catechism about her brother, 
who in truth I could hardly claim to have known, and who grew 
more and more mysterious to me every day — less important as a 
personage, more and more so as an artist? It was clear that I must 
wait until she chose to speak her mind. Yet it was baffling to 
idle away the time in the exchange of superficialities. 

Yet these smooth informalities reigned, and to my surprise 
the girl herself said nothing — not a word. She sat there on the 
sofa, softly and attentively, as if on a cloud. She wore, I 
noticed, a velvet ribbon on her throat. It occurred to me that 
her pallor, which had so much struck Clea, was probably due to 
not being able to make-up in the mirror. But Clea had been 
right about the shape of her mouth, for once or twice I caught 
an expression, cutting and sardonic, which was a replica of her 
brother's. 

168 



Dinner was wheeled in by a servant, and still exchanging 
small talk we sat down to eat it; Liza ate swiftly, as if she were 
hungry, and quite unerringly, from the plate which Mount- 
olive filled for her. I noticed when she reached for her wine- 
glass that her expressive fingers trembled slightly. At last, when 
the meal was over, Mountolive rose with an air of scarcely dis- 
guised relief and excused himself. "I'm going to leave you 
alone to talk shop to Liza. I shall have to do some work in the 
Chancery this evening. You will excuse me won't you?" I saw 
an apprehensive frown shadow Liza's face for a moment, but it 
vanished almost at once and was replaced by an expression 
which suggested something between despair and resignation. 
Her fingers picked softly, suggestively at the tassel of a cushion. 
When the door had closed behind him she still sat silent, but 
now preternaturally still, her head bent downwards as if she 
were trying to decipher a message written in the palm of her 
hand. At last she spoke in a small cold voice, pronouncing the 
words incisively as if to make her meaning plain. 

"I had no idea it would be difficult to explain when first I 
thought of asking your help. This book. ..." 

There was a long silence. I saw that little drops of perspira- 
tion had come out on her upper lip and her temples looked as if 
they had tightened under stress. I felt a certain compassion for 
her distress and said: "I can't claim to have known him well, 
though I saw him quite frequently. In truth, I don't think we 
liked each other very much." 

"Originally" she said sharply, cutting across my vagueness 
with impatience "I thought I might persuade you to do the 
book about him. But now I see that you will have to know 
everything. It is not easy to know where to begin. I myself 
doubt whether the facts of his life are possible to put down and 
publish. But I have been driven to think about the matter, first 
because his publishers insist on it — they say there is a great 
public demand; but mostly because of the book which this 
shabby journalist is writing, or has written. Keats." 

169 



"Keats" I echoed with surprise. 

"He is here somewhere I believe; but I do not know him. He 
has been put up to the idea by my brother's wife. She hated 
him, you know, after she found out; she thought that my 
brother and I had between us ruined her life. Truthfully I am 
afraid of her. I do not know what she has told Keats, or what 
he will write. I see now that my original idea in having you 
brought here was to get you to write a book which would . ♦ . 
disguise the truth somehow. It only became clear to me just 
now when I was confronted by you. It would be inexpressibly 
painful to me if anything got out which harmed my brother's 
memory." 

Somewhere to the east I heard a grumble of thunder. She 
stood up with an air of panic and after a moment's hesitation 
crossed to the grand piano and struck a chord. Then she banged 
the cover down and turned once more to me, saying: "I am 
afraid of thunder. Please may I hold your hand in a firm grip." 
Her own was deathly cold. Then, shaking back her black hair 
she said: "We were lovers, you know. That is really the mean- 
ing of his story and mine. He tried to break away. His marriage 
foundered on this question. It was perhaps dishonest of him 
not to have told her the truth before he married her. Things fall 
out strangely. For many years we enjoyed a perfect happiness, 
he and I. That it ended tragically is nobody's fault I suppose. 
He could not free himself from my inside hold on him, though 
he tried and struggled. I could not free myself from him, 
though truthfully I never wished to until . . . until the day 
arrived which he had predicted so many years before when the 
man he always called 'the dark stranger' arrived. He saw him so 
clearly when he gazed into the fire. It was David Mountolive. 
For a little while I did not tell him that I had fallen in love, the 
fated love. (David would not let me. The only person we told 
was Nessim's mother. David asked my permission.) But my 
brother knew it quite unerringly and wrote after a long silence 
asking me if the stranger had come. When he got my letter he 

170 



seemed suddenly to realise that our relationship might be en- 
dangered or crushed in the way his had been with his wife — 
not by anything we did, no, but by the simple fact of my 
existence. So he committed suicide. He explained it all so 
clearly in his last letter to me. I can recite it by heart. He said: 
'For so many years I have waited in anguished expectation for 
your letter. Often, often I wrote it for you in my own head, 
spelling it out word by magical word. I knew that in your 
happiness you would at once turn to me to express a passionate 
gratitude for what I had given you — for learning the meaning of 
all love through mine: so that when the stranger came you were 
ready. . . . And today it came! this long-awaited message, saying 
that he had read the letters, and I knew for the first time a sense 
of inexpressible relief as I read the lines. And joy — such joy as I 
never hoped to experience in my life — to think of you suddenly 
plunging into the full richness of life at last, no longer tied, 
manacled to the image of your tormented brother! Blessings 
tumbled from my lips. But then, gradually, as the cloud lifted 
and dispersed I felt the leaden tug of another truth, quite un- 
foreseen, quite unexpected. The fear that, so long as I was still 
alive, still somewhere existing in the world, you would find it 
impossible truly to escape from the chains in which I have so 
cruelly held you all these years. At this fear my blood has 
turned chill — for I know that truthfully something much more 
definitive is required of me if you are ever to renounce me and 
start living. I must really abandon you, really remove myself 
from the scene in a manner which would permit no further 
equivocation in our vacillating hearts. Yes, I had anticipated 
the joy, but not that it would bring with it such a clear repre- 
sentation of certain death. This was a huge novelty! Yet it is 
the completest gift I can offer you as a wedding present! And if 
you look beyond the immediate pain you will see how perfect 
the logic of love seems to one who is ready to die for it.' ' 

She gave a short clear sob and hung her head. She took the 
handkerchief from the breast pocket of my coat and pressed it 

171 



to her trembling lip. I felt stupefied by the sad weight of all 
this calamitous information. I felt, in the ache of pity for 
Pursewarden, a new recognition of him growing up, a hew en- 
lightenment. So many things became clearer. Yet there were no 
words of consolation or commiseration which could do justice 
to so tragic a situation. She was talking again. 

"I will give you the private letters to read so that you can 
advise me. These are the letters which I was not to open but 
was to keep until David came. He would read them to me and 
we would destroy them — or so he said. Is it strange — his cer- 
tainty? The other ordinary letters were of course read to me in 
the usual way; but these private letters, and they are very many, 
were all pierced with a pin in the top left-hand corner. So that I 
could recognise them and put them aside. They are in that suit- 
case over there. I would like you to take them away and study 
them. O Darley, you have not said a word. Are you prepared to 
help me in this dreadful predicament? I wish I could read your 
expression." 

"Of course I will help you. But just how and in what sense?" 

"Advise me what to do! None of this would have arisen had 
not this shabby journalist intervened and been to see his wife." 

"Did your brother appoint a literary executor?" 

"Yes. I am his executor." 

"Then you have a right to refuse to allow any of his unsold 
writings to be published while they're in copyright. Besides, I 
do not see how such facts could be made public without your 
own permission, even in an unauthorised biography. There is no 
cause whatsoever to worry. No writer in his senses could touch 
such material; no publisher in the world would undertake to 
print it if he did. I think the best thing I can do is to try and 
find out something about this book of Keats' s. Then at least 
you will know where you stand." 

"Thank you, Darley. I could not approach Keats myself 
because I knew he was working for her. I hate and fear her — 
perhaps unjustly. I suppose too that I have a feeling of having 

172 



wronged her without wishing it. It was a deplorable mistake on 
his part not to tell her before their marriage; I think he recog- 
nised it, too, for he was determined that I should not make the 
same mistake when at last David appeared. Hence the private 
letters, which leave no one in doubt. Yet it all fell out exactly 
as he had planned it, had prophesied it. That very first night 
when I told David I took him straight home to read them. We 
sat on the carpet in front of the gas-fire and he read them to me 
one by one in that unmistakable voice — the stranger's voice.' ' 

She gave a queer blind smile at the memory and I had a 
sudden compassionate picture of Mountolive sitting before the 
fire, reading these letters in a slow faltering voice, stunned by 
the revelation of his own part in this weird masque, which had 
been planned for him years before, without his knowing. Liza 
sat beside me, lost in deep thought, her head hanging. Her lips 
moved slowly as if she were spelling something out in her own 
mind, following some interior recitation. I shook her hand 
softly, as if to awaken her. "I should leave you now" I said 
softly. "And why should I see the private letters at all? There is 
no need." 

"Now that you know the worst and best I would like you to 
advise me about destroying them. It was his wish. But David 
feels that they belong to his writings, and that we have a duty 
to preserve them. I cannot make up my mind about this. You 
are a writer. Try and read them as a writer, as if you had written 
them, and then tell me whether you would wish them preserved 
or not. They are all together in that suitcase. There are one or 
two other fragments which you might help me edit if you have 
time or if you think them suitable. He always puzzled me — 
except when I had him in my arms." 

A sudden expression of savage resentment passed across her 
white face. As if she had been goaded by a sudden disagreeable 
memory. She passed her tongue over her dry lips and as we 
stood up together she added in a small husky voice: "There is 
one thing more. Since you have seen so far into out lives why 

173 



should you not look right to the bottom? I always keep this 
close to me." Reaching down into her dress she took out a 
snapshot and handed it to me. It was faded and creased. A 
small child with long hair done up in ribbons sat upon a park 
bench, gazing with a melancholy and wistful smile at the 
camera and holding out a white stick. It took me a moment or 
so to identify those troubling lines of mouth and nose as the 
features of Pursewarden himself and to realise that the little 
girl was blind. 

"Do you see her?" said Liza in a thrilling whisper that shook 
the nerves by its strange tension, its mixture of savagery, bitter- 
ness and triumphant anguish. "Do you see her? She was our 
child. It was when she died that he was overcome with remorse 
for a situation which had brought us nothing but joy before. 
Her death suddenly made him guilty. Our relationship foun- 
dered there; and yet it became in another way even more intense, 
closer. We were united by our guilt from that moment. I have 
often asked myself why it should be so. Tremendous unbroken 
happiness and then . . . one day, like an iron shutter falling, 
guilt." 

The word dropped like a falling star and expired in the silence. 
I took this unhappiest of all relics and pressed it into her cold 
hands. 

"I will take the letters" I said. 

"Thank you" she replied with an air now of dazed exhaus- 
tion. "I knew we had a friend in you. I shall count on your 
help." 

As I softly closed the front-door behind me I heard a chord 
struck upon the piano — a single chord which hung in the silent 
air, its vibrations diminishing like an echo. As I crossed among 
the trees I caught a glimpse of Mountolive sneaking towards 
the side door of the house. I suddenly divined that he had been 
walking up and down outside the house in an agony of apprehen- 
sion, with the air of a schoolboy waiting outside his house- 
master's study to receive a beating. I felt a pang of sympathy 

x 74 



for him, for his weakness, for the dreadful entanglement in 
which he had found himself. 

I found to my surprise that it was still early. Clea had gone 
to Cairo for the day and was not expected back. I took the little 
suitcase to her flat and sitting on the floor unpacked it. 

In that quiet room, by the light of her candles, I began to 
read the private letters with a curious interior premonition, a 
stirring of something like fear — so dreadful a thing is it to ex- 
plore the inmost secrets of another human being's life. Nor did 
this feeling diminish as I proceeded, rather it deepened into a 
sort of terror, almost a horror of what might be coming next. 
The letters! Ferocious, sulky, brilliant, profuse — the torrent of 
words in that close hand flowed on and on endlessly, studded 
with diamond-hard images, a wild self-analytical frenzy of 
despair, remorse and passion. I began to tremble as one must in 
the presence of a great master, to tremble and mutter. With an 
interior shock I realised that there was nothing in the whole 
length and breadth of our literature with which to compare 
them! Whatever other masterpieces Pursewarden may have 
written these letters outshone them all in their furious, un- 
premeditated brilliance and prolixity. Literature, I say! But 
these were life itself, not a studied representation of it in a form 
— life itself, the flowing undivided stream of life with all its 
pitiable will-intoxicated memories, its pains, terrors and sub- 
missions. Here illusion and reality were fused in one single 
blinding vision of a perfect incorruptible passion which hung 
over the writer's mind like a dark star — the star of death! The 
tremendous sorrow and beauty which this man expressed so 
easily — the terrifying abundance of his gifts — filled me with 
helpless despair and joy at once. The cruelty and the richness! 
It was as if the words poured from every pore in his body — 
execrations, groans, mixed tears of joy and despair — all welded 
to the fierce rapid musical notation of a language perfected by 
its purpose. Here at last the lovers confronted one another, 
stripped to the bone, stripped bare. 

U5 



In this strange and frightening experience I caught a glimpse, 
for a moment, of the true Pursewarden — the man who had 
always eluded me. I thought with shame of the shabby passages 
in the Justine manuscript which I had devoted to him — to my 
image of him! I had, out of envy or unconscious jealousy, in- 
vented a Pursewarden to criticise. In everything I had written 
there I had accused him only of my own weaknesses — even 
down to completely erroneous estimates of qualities like social 
inferiorities which were mine, had never been his. It was 
only now, tracing out the lines written by that rapid unfaltering 
pen, that I realised that poetic or transcendental knowledge 
somehow cancels out purely relative knowledge, and that his 
black humours were simply ironies due to this enigmatic know- 
ledge whose field of operation was above, beyond that of the 
relative fact-finding sort. There was no answer to the questions 
I had raised in very truth. He had been quite right. Blind as a 
mole, I had been digging about in the graveyard of relative fact 
piling up data, more information, and completely missing the 
mythopoeic reference which underlies fact. I had called this 
searching for truth! Nor was there any way in which I might be 
instructed in the matter — save by the ironies I had found so 
wounding. For now I realised that his irony was really tender- 
ness turned inside out like a glove! And seeing Pursewarden 
thus, for the first time, I saw that through his work he had been 
seeking for the very tenderness of logic itself, of the Way 
Things Are; not the logic of syllogism or the tide-marks of 
emotions, but the real essence of fact-finding, the naked truth, 
the Inkling . . . the whole pointless Joke. Yes, Joke! I woke up 
with a start and swore. 

If two or more explanations of a single human action are as 
good as each other then what does action mean but an illusion 
— a gesture made against the misty backcloth of a reality made 
palpable by the delusive nature of human division merely? Had 
any novelist before Pursewarden considered this question? I 
think not. 

i 7 6 



And in brooding over these terrible letters I also suddenly 
stumbled upon the true meaning of my own relationship to 
Pursewarden, and through him to all writers. I saw, in fact, 
that we artists form one of those pathetic human chains which 
human beings form to pass buckets of water up to a fire, or to 
bring in a lifeboat. An uninterrupted chain of humans born to 
explore the inward riches of the solitary life on behalf of the 
unheeding unforgiving community; manacled together by the 
same gift. 

I began to see too that the real "fiction" lay neither in 
Arnauti's pages nor Pursewarden's — nor even my own. It was 
life itself that was a fiction — we were all saying it in our 
different ways, each understanding it according to his nature 
and gift. 

It was now only that I began to see how mysteriously the 
configuration of my own life had taken its shape from the pro- 
perties of those elements which lie outside the relative life — in 
the kingdom which Pursewarden calls the "heraldic universe". 
We were three writers, I now saw, confided to a mythical city 
from which we were to draw our nourishment, in which we 
were to confirm our gifts. Arnauti, Pursewarden, Darley — like 
Past, Present and Future tense! And in my own life (the 
staunchless stream flowing from the wounded side of Time!) 
the three women who also arranged themselves as if to represent 
the moods of the great verb, Love: Melissa, Justine and Clea. 

And realising this I was suddenly afHicted by a great melan- 
choly and despair at recognising the completely limited nature 
of my own powers, hedged about as they were by the limitations 
of an intelligence too powerful for itself, and lacking in sheer 
word-magic, in propulsion, in passion, to achieve this other 
world of artistic fulfilment. 

I had just locked those unbearable letters away and was sit- 
ting in melancholy realisation of this fact when the door 
opened and Clea walked in, radiant and smiling. "Why, Dar- 
ley, what are you doing sitting in the middle of the floor in that 

177 



rueful attitude? And my dear there are tears in your eyes." At 
once she was down beside me on her knees, all tenderness. 

' 'Tears of exasperation" I said, and then, embracing her, "I 
have just realised that I am not an artist at all. There is not a 
shred of hope of my ever being one." 

"What on earth have you been up to?" 

"Reading Pursewarden's letters to Liza." 

"Did you see her?" 

"Yes. Keats is writing some absurd book " 

"But I just ran into him. He's back from the desert for the 
night." 

I struggled to my feet. It seemed to me imperative that I 
should find him and discover what I could about his project. 
"He spoke" said Clea "about going round to Pombars for a 
bath. I expect you'll find him there if you hurry." 

Keats! I thought to myself as I hurried down the street to- 
wards the flat; he was also to play his part in this shadowy 
representation, this tableau of the artist's life. For it is always a 
Keats that is chosen to interpret, to drag his trail of slime over 
the pitiful muddled life out of which the artist, with such pain, 
recaptures these strange solitary jewels of self-enlightenment. 
After those letters it seemed to me more than ever necessary 
that people like Keats should if possible be kept away from 
interfering in matters beyond their normal concerns. As a jour- 
nalist with a romantic story (suicide is the most romantic act 
for an artist) he doubtless felt himself to be in the presence of 
what he, in the old days, would have called "A stunner. A 
Story in a Million". I thought that I knew my Keats — but of 
course once more I had completely forgotten to take into 
account the operations of Time, for Keats had changed as we 
all had, and my meeting with him turned out to be as unex- 
pected as everything else about the city. 

I had mislaid my key and had to ring for Hamid to open the 
door for me. Yes, he said, Mr. Keats was there, in the bath. I 
traversed the corridor and tapped at the door behind which 

i 7 8 



came the sound of rushing water and a cheerful whistling. "By 
God, Darley, how splendid" he shouted in answer to my call. 
"Come in while I dry. I heard you were back/' 

Under the shower stood a Greek god! I was so surprised at the 
transformation that I sat down abruptly on the lavatory and 
studied this . . . apparition. Keats was burnt almost black, and 
his hair had bleached white. Though slimmer, he looked in 
first-class physical condition. The brown skin and ashen hair 
had made his twinkling eyes bluer than ever. He bore abso- 
lutely no resemblance to my memories of him! "I just sneaked off 
for the night" he said, speaking in a new rapid and confident 
voice. "I'm developing one of those blasted desert sores on my 
elbow, so I got a chit and here I am. I don't know what the hell 
causes them, nobody does; perhaps all the tinned muck we eat 
up there in the desert! But two days in Alex and an injection 
and presto! The bloody thing clears up again! I say, Darley, 
what fun to meet again. There's so much to tell you. This 
war!" He was bubbling over with high spirits. "God, this 
water is a treat. I've been revelling." 

"You look in tremendous shape." 

"I am. I am." He smacked himself exuberantly on the but- 
tocks. "Golly though, it is good to come into Alex. Contrasts 
make you appreciate things so much better. Those tanks get so 
hot you feel like frying whitebait. Reach my drink, there's a 
good chap." On the floor stood a tall glass of whisky and soda 
with an ice cube in it. He shook the glass, holding it to his ear 
like a child. "Listen to the ice tinkling" he cried in ecstasy. 
"Music to the soul, the tinkle of ice/' He raised his glass, 
wrinkled up his nose at me and drank my health. "You look in 
quite good shape, too" he said, and his blue eyes twinkled with 
a new mischievous light. "Now for some clothes and then . . . 
my dear chap, I'm rich. I'll give you a slap-up dinner at the 
Petit Coin. No refusals, I'll not be baulked. I particularly 
wanted to see you and talk to you. I have news." 

He positively skipped into the bedroom to dress and I sat 

179 



on Pombal's bed to keep him company while he did so. His 
high spirits were quite infectious. He seemed hardly able to 
keep still. A thousand thoughts and ideas bubbled up inside 
him which he wanted to express simultaneously. He capered 
down the stairs into the street like a schoolboy, taking the last 
flight at a single bound. I thought he would break into a dance 
along Rue Fuad. "But seriously" he said, squeezing my elbow 
so hard that it hurt. "Seriously, life is wonderful" and as if to 
illustrate his seriousness he burst into ringing laughter. "When 
I think how we used to brood and worry.' ' Apparently he in- 
cluded me in this new euphoric outlook on life. "How slowly 
we took everything, I feel ashamed to remember it!" 

At the Petit Coin we secured a corner table after an amiable 
altercation with a naval lieutenant, and he at once took hold of 
Menotti and commanded champagne to be brought. Where the 
devil had he got this new laughing authoritative manner which 
instantly commanded sympathetic respect without giving 
offence? 

"The desert!" he said, as if in answer to my unspoken ques- 
tion. "The desert, Darley, old boy. That is something to be 
seen." From a capacious pocket he produced a copy of the 
Pickwick Papers. "Damn!" he said. "I mustn't forget to get this 
copy replaced. Or the crew will bloody well fry me." It was a 
sodden, dog-eared little book with a bullet hole in the cover, 
smeared with oil. "It's our only library, and some bastard must 
have wiped himself on the middle third. I've sworn to replace 
it. Actually there's a copy at the flat. I don't suppose Pombal 
would mind my pinching it. It's absurd. When there isn't any 
action we lie about reading it aloud to one another, under the 
stars! Absurd, my dear chap, but then everything is more 
absurd. More and more absurd every day." 

"You sound so happy" I said, not without a certain envy. 

"Yes" he said in a smaller voice, and suddenly, for the first 
time, became relatively serious. "I am. Darley, let me make 
you a confidence. Promise not to groan." 

180 



"I promise." 

He leaned forward and said in a whisper, his eyes twinkling, 
"I've become a writer at last!" Then suddenly he gave his 
ringing laugh. "You promised not to groan" he said, 

"I didn't groan." 

"Well, you looked groany and supercilious. The proper 
response would have been to shout 'Hurrah!' 

"Don't shout so loud or they'll ask us to leave." 

"Sorry. It came over me." 

He drank a large bumper of champagne with the air of some- 
one toasting himself and leaned back in his chair, gazing at me 
quizzically with the same mischievous sparkle in his blue eyes. 

"What have you written?" I asked. 

"Nothing" he said, smiling. "Not a word as yet. It's all up 
here." He pointed a brown finger at his temple. "But now at 
least I know it is. Somehow whether I do or don't actually 
write isn't important — it isn't, if you like, the whole point 
about becoming a writer at all, as I used to think." 

In the street outside a barrel organ began playing with its sad 
hollow iteration. It was a very ancient English barrel organ 
which old blind Arif had found on a scrap heap and had fixed 
up in a somewhat approximate manner. Whole notes misfired 
and several chords were hopelessly out of tune. 

"Listen" said Keats, with deep emotion, "just listen to old 
Arif." He was in that delicious state of inspiration which only 
comes when champagne supervenes upon a state of fatigue — a 
melancholy tipsiness which is wholly inspiriting. "Gosh!" he 
went on in rapture, and began to sing in a very soft husky 
whisper, marking time with his finger, 'Taise^-vous petit 
babouin". Then he gave a great sigh of repletion, and chose 
himself a cigar from Menotti's great case of specimens, saunter- 
ing back to the table where he once more sat before me, smiling 
rapturously. "This war" he said at last, "I really must tell 
you. ... It is quite different to what I imagined it must be 
like." 

181 



Under his champagne-bedizened tipsiness he had become 
relatively grave all at once. He said: " Nobody seeing it for the 
first time could help crying out with the whole of his rational 
mind in protest at it: crying out It must stop!' My dear chap, 
to see the ethics of man at his norm you must see a battlefield. 
The general idea may be summed up in the expressive phrase: 
'If you can't eat it or **** it, then **** on it/ Two thousand 
years of civilisation! It peels off in a flash. Scratch with your 
little finger and you reach the woad or the ritual war paint 
under the varnish! Just like that!" He scratched the air be- 
tween us languidly with his expensive cigar. "And yet — you 
know what? The most unaccountable and baffling thing. It has 
made a man of me, as the saying goes. More, a writer! My soul 
is quite clear. I suppose you could regard me as permanently 
disfigured! I have begun it at last, that bloody joyful book of 
mine. Chapter by chapter it is forming in my old journalist's 
noddle — no, not a journalist's any more, a writer's." He 
laughed again as if at the preposterous notion. "Darley when I 
look around that . . . battlefield at night, I stand in an ecstasy 
of shame, revelling at the coloured lights, the flares wallpaper- 
ing the sky, and I say: 'All this had to be brought about so that 
poor Johnny Keats could grow into a man.' That's what. It is a 
complete enigma to me, yet I am absolutely certain of it. No 
other way would have helped me because I was too damned 
stupid, do you see?" He was silent for a while and somewhat 
distrait, drawing on his cigar. It was as if he were going over 
this last piece of conversation in his mind to consider its valid- 
ity, word by word, as one tests a piece of machinery. Then he 
added, but with care and caution, and a certain expression of 
bemused concentration, like a man handling unfamiliar terms: 
"The man of action and the man of reflection are really the 
same man, operating on two different fields. But to the same 
end! Wait, this is beginning to sound silly/' He tapped his 
temple reproachfully and frowned. After a moment's thought 
he went on, still frowning: "Shall I tell you my notion about 

182 



it . . . the war? What I have come to believe? I believe the 
desire for war was first lodged in the instincts as a biological 
shock-mechanism to precipitate a spiritual crisis which couldn't 
be done any other how in limited people. The less sensitive 
among us can hardly visualise death, far less live joyfully with 
it. So the powers that arranged things for us felt they must 
concretise it, in order to lodge death in the actual present. 
Purely helpfully, if you see what I mean!" He laughed again, 
but ruefully this time. "Of course it is rather different now 
that the bystander is getting hit harder than the front-line 
bloke. It is unfair to the men of the tribe who would like to 
leave the wife and kids in relative safety before stumping off to 
this primitive ordination. For my part I think the instinct has 
somewhat atrophied, and may be on the way out altogether; 
but what will they put in its place — that's what I wonder? As 
for me, Darley, I can only say that no half-dozen French mis- 
tresses, no travels round the globe, no adventures in the peace- 
time world we knew could have grown me up so thoroughly in 
half the time. You remember how I used to be? Look, I'm 
really an adult now — but of course ageing fast, altogether too 
fast! It will sound damn silly to you, but the presence of death 
out there as a normal feature of life — only in full acceleration so 
to speak — has given me an inkling of Life Everlasting! And 
there was no other way I could have grasped it, damn it. Ah! 
well, I'll probably get bumped off up there in full possession 
of my imbecility, as you might say." 

He burst out laughing once more, and gave himself three 
noiseless cheers, raising his cigar-hand ceremoniously at each 
cheer. Then he winked carefully at me and filled his glass once 
more, adding with an air of vagueness the coda: "Life only has 
its full meaning to those who co-opt death!" I could see that 
he was rather drunk by now, for the soothing effects of the hot 
shower had worn off and the desert-fatigue had begun to 
reassert itself. 

"And Pursewarden?" I said, divining the very moment at 

i8 3 



which to drop his name, like a hook, into the stream of our 
conversation. 

"Pursewarden!" he echoed on a different note, which com- 
bined a melancholy sadness and affection. "But my dear Dar- 
ley, it was something like this that he was trying to tell me, in 
his own rather bloody way. And I? I still blush with shame 
when I think of the questions I asked him. And yet his answers, 
which seemed so bloody enigmatic then, make perfect sense to 
me how. Truth is double-bladed, you see. There is no way to 
express it in terms of language, this strange bifurcated medium 
with its basic duality! Language! What is the writer's struggle 
except a struggle to use a medium as precisely as possible, but 
knowing fully its basic imprecision? A hopeless task, but none 
the less rewarding for being hopeless. Because the task itself, 
the act of wrestling with an insoluble problem, grows the writer 
up! This was what the old bastard realised. You should read his 
letters to his wife. For all their brilliance how he whined and 
cringed, how despicably he presented himself — like some 
Dostoievskian character beset by some nasty compulsion 
neurosis! It is really staggering what a petty and trivial soul he 
reveals there/' This was an amazing insight into the tormented 
yet wholly complete being of the letters which I myself had 
just read! 

"Keats" I said, "for goodness ' sake tell me. Are you writing 
a book about him?" 

Keats drank slowly and thoughtfully and replaced his glass 
somewhat unsteadily before saying: "No." He stroked his 
chin and fell silent. 

"They say you are writing something" I persisted. He shook 
his head obstinately and contemplated his glass with a blurred 
eye. "I wanted to" he admitted at last, slowly. "I did a long 
review of the novels once for a small mag. The next thing I got 
a letter from his wife. She wanted a book done. A big raw- 
boned Irish girl, very hysterical and sluttish: handsome in a big 
way, I suppose. Always blowing her nose in an old envelope. 

184 



Always in carpet slippers. I must say I felt for him. But I 
tumbled straight into a hornets' nest there. She loathed him, 
and there seemed to be plenty to loathe, I must say. She gave 
me a great deal of information, and simply masses of letters and 
manuscripts. Treasure trove all right. But, my dear chap, I 
couldn't use this sort of stuff. If for no other reason than that I 
respect his memory and his work. No. No. I fobbed her off. 
Told her she would never get such things published. She 
seemed to want to be publicly martyred in print just to get back 
at him — old Pursewarden! I couldn't do such a thing. Besides 
the material was quite hair-raising! I don't want to talk about 
it. Really, I would never repeat the truth to a soul." 

We sat looking thoughtfully, even watchfully at each other, 
for a long moment before I spoke again. 

"Have you ever met his sister, Liza?" 

Keats shook his head slowly. "No. What was the point? I 
abandoned the project right away, so there was no need to try 
and hear her story. I know she has a lot of manuscript stuff, 
because the wife told me so. But. . . . She is here isn't she?" 
His lip curled with the faintest suggestion of disgust. ' 'Truth- 
fully I don't want to meet her. The bitter truth of the matter 
seems to me that the person old Pursewarden most loved — I 
mean purely spiritually — did not at all understand the state of 
his soul, so to speak, when he died: or even have the vaguest 
idea of the extent of his achievement. No, she was busy with a 
vulgar intrigue concerned with legalising her relations with 
Mountolive. I suppose she feared that her marriage to a diplo- 
mat might be imperilled by a possible scandal. I may be wrong, 
but that is the impression I gathered. I believe she was going to 
try and get a whitewashing book written. But now, in a sense, 
I have my own Pursewarden, my own copy of him, if you like. 
It's enough for me. What do the details matter, and why 
should I meet his sister? It is his work and not his life which is 
necessary to us — which offers one of the many meanings of the 
word with four faces!" 

185 



I had an impulse to cry out "Unfair", but I restrained it. It 
is impossible in this world to arrange for full justice to be done 
to everyone. Keats's eyelids drooped. "Come" I said, calling 
for the bill, "it's time you went home and got some sleep.' ' 

"I do feel rather tired" he mumbled. 

"Avanti." 

There was an old horse-drawn gharry in a side-street which 
we were glad to find. Keats protested that his feet were begin- 
ning to hurt and his arm to pain him. He was in a pleasantly 
exhausted frame of mind, and slightly tipsy after his potations. 
He lay back in the smelly old cab and closed his eyes. "D'you 
know, Darky" he said indistinctly, "I meant to tell you but 
forgot. Don't be angry with me, old fellow-bondsman, will 
you. I know that you and Clea. . . . Yes, and I'm glad. But I 
have the most curious feeling that one day I am going to marry 
her. Really. Don't be silly about it. Of course I would never 
breathe a word, and it would happen years after this silly old 
war. But somewhere along the line I feel I'm bound to hitch up 
with her." 

"Now what do you expect me to say?" 

"Well, there are a hundred courses open. Myself I would 
start yelling and screaming at once if you said such a thing to 
me. I'd knock your block off, push you out of the cab, any- 
thing. I'd punch me in the eye." 

The gharry drew up with a jolt outside the house. "Here we 
are" I said, and helped my companion down into the road. 
"I'm not as drunk as all that" he cried cheerfully, shaking off 
my help, "'tis but fatigue, dear friend." And while I argued 
out the cost of the trip with the driver he went round and held 
a long private confabulation with the horse, stroking its nose. 
"I was giving it some maxims to live by" he explained as we 
wound our weary way up the staircase. "But the champagne had 
muddled up my quotation-box. What's that thing of Shake- 
speare's about the lover and the cuckold all compact, seeking 
the bubble reputation e'en in the cannon's mouth." The last 

1 86 



phrase he pronounced in the strange (man-sawing-wood) 
delivery of Churchill. "Or something about swimmers into 
cleanness leaping — a pre-fab in the eternal mind no less!" 

"You are murdering them both." 

"Gosh I'm tired. And there seems to be no bombardment 
tonight." 

"They are getting less frequent." 

He collapsed on his bed fully dressed, slowly untying his 
suede desert boots and wriggling with his toes until they slid 
slowly off and plopped to the floor. "Did you ever see Purse- 
warden's little book called Select Prayers for English Intellectuals'} 
It was funny. 'Dear Jesus, please keep me as eighteenth century 
as possible — but without the c *******^ t t > *> ]_j e g ave a 
sleepy chuckle, put his arms behind his head and started drift- 
ing into smiling sleep. As I turned out the light he sighed 
deeply and said: "Even the dead are overwhelming us all the 
time with kindnesses." 

I had a sudden picture of him as a small boy walking upon 
the very brink of precipitous cliffs to gather seabirds* eggs. 
One slip. . . . 

But I was never to see him again. Vale! 



i8 7 



Ten thirsty fingers of my blind Muse 
Confer upon my face their sensual spelling 

The lines ran through my head as I pressed the bell of 
the summer residence the following evening. In my 
hand I held the green leather suitcase which con- 
tained the private letters of Pursewarden — that 
brilliant sustained fusillade of words which still exploded in 
my memory like a firework display, scorching me. I had tele- 
phoned to Liza from my office in the morning to make the 
rendezvous. She opened the door and stood before me with a 
pale graven expression of expectancy. "Good" she whispered as 
I murmured my name and "Come". She turned and walked 
before me with a stiff upright expressive gait which reminded 
me of a child dressed up as Queen Elizabeth for a charade. She 
looked tired and strained, and yet in a curious way proud. The 
living-room was empty. Mountolive, I knew, had returned to 
Cairo that morning. Rather surprisingly, for it was late in the 
year, a log-fire burned in the chimney-piece. She took up her 
stand before it, arching her back to the warmth, and rubbing 
her hands as if she were chilled. 

"You have been quick, very quick" she said, almost sharply, 
almost with a hint of implied reproach in her tone. "But I am 
glad." I had already told her by telephone the gist of my con- 
versation with Keats about the non-existent book. "I am glad, 
because now we can decide something, finally. I couldn't sleep 
last night. I kept imagining you reading them, the letters. I 
kept imagining him writing them." 

"They are marvellous. I have never read anything like them 
in my whole life." I felt a note of chagrin in my own tones. 

188 



"Yes" she said, and fetched a deep sigh. "And yet I was 
afraid you would think so; afraid because you would share 
David's opinion of them and advise me that they should be 
preserved at all costs. Yet he expressly told me to burn them." 

"I know." 

"Sit down, Darley. Tell me what you really think." 

I sat down, placing the little suitcase on the floor beside me, 
and said: "Liza, this is not a literary problem unless you choose 
to regard it as one. You need take nobody's advice. Naturally 
nobody who has read them could help but regret the loss." 

"But Darley, if they had been yours, written to someone 
you ♦ . . loved?" 

"I should feel relief to know that my instructions had been 
carried out. At least I presume that is what he would feel, 
wherever he might be now." 

She turned her lucid blind face to the mirror and appeared to 
explore her own reflection in it earnestly, resting the tips of her 
frilly fingers on the mantelpiece. "I am as superstitious as he 
was" she said at last. "But it is more than that. I was always 
obedient because I knew that he saw farther than I and under- 
stood more than I did." 

This caged reflection gives her nothing hack 
That women drink like thirsty stags from mirrors 

How very much of Pursewarden's poetry became crystal- 
clear and precise in the light of all this new knowledge! How it 
gathered consequence and poignance from the figure of Liza 
exploring her own blindness in the great mirror, her dark hair 
thrown back on her shoulders! 

At last she turned back again, sighing once more, and I saw a 
look of tender pleading on her face, made the more haunting 
and expressive by the empty sockets of her eyes. She took a step 
forward and said: "Well, then, it is decided. Only tell me you 
will help me burn them. They are very many. It will take a 
little time." 

189 



"If you wish." 

"Let us sit down beside the fire together." 

So we sat facing each other on the carpet and I placed the 
suitcase between us, pressing the lock so that the cover released 
itself and sprang up with a snap. 

"Yes" she said. "This is how it must be. I should have 
known all along that I must obey him." Slowly, one by one I 
took up the pierced envelopes, unfolded each letter in turn and 
handed it to her to place upon the burning logs. 

"We used to sit like this as children with our playbox be- 
tween us, before the fire, in the winter. So often, and always 
together. You would have to go back very far into the past to 
understand it all. And even then I wonder if you would under- 
stand. Two small children left alone in an old rambling farm- 
house among the frozen lakes, among the mists and rains of 
Ireland. We had no resources except in each other. He con- 
verted my blindness into poetry, I saw with his brain, he with 
my eyes. So we invented a whole imperishable world of poetry 
together — better by far than the best of his books, and I have 
read them all with my fingers, they are all at the institute. Yes 
I read and re-read them looking for a clue to the guilt which 
had transformed everything. Nothing had affected us before, 
everything conspired to isolate us, keep us together. The death 
of our parents happened when we were almost too small to 
comprehend it. We lived in this ramshackle old farmhouse in 
the care of an eccentric and deaf old aunt who did the work, 
saw that we were fed, and left us to our own devices. There was 
only one book there, a Plutarch, which we knew by heart. 
Everything else he invented. This was how I became the strange 
mythological queen of his life, living in a vast palace of sighs — 
as he used to say. Sometimes it was Egypt, sometimes Peru, 
sometimes Byzantium. I suppose I must have known that 
really it was an old farmhouse kitchen, with shabby deal furni- 
ture and floors of red tile. At least when the floors had been 
washed with carbolic soap with its peculiar smell I knew, with 

190 



half my mind, that it was a farmhouse floor, and not a palace 
with magnificent tessellated floors brilliant with snakes and 
eagles and pygmies. But at a word he brought me back to real- 
ity, as he called it. Later, when he started looking for justifica- 
tions for our love instead of just simply being proud of it, he 
read me a quotation from a book. 'In the African burial rites it 
is the sister who brings the dead king back to life. In Egypt as 
well as Peru the king, who was considered as God, took his 
sister to wife. But the motive was ritual and not sexual, for they 
symbolised the moon and the sun in their conjunction. The 
king marries his sister because he, as God the star, wandering on 
earth, is immortal and may therefore not propagate himself in 
the children of a strange woman, any more than he is allowed 
to die a natural death.' That is why he was pleased to come 
there to Egypt, because he felt, he said, an interior poetic link 
with Osiris and Isis, with Ptolemy and Arsinoe — the race of 
the sun and the moon!" 

Quietly and methodically she placed letter after letter on the 
burning pyre, talking in a sad monotone, as much to herself as 
to me. 

"No it would not be possible to make it all comprehensible 
to those who were not of our race. But when the guilt entered 
the old poetic life began to lose its magic — not for me: but for 
him. It was he who made me dye my hair black, so that I could 
pretend to be a step-sister of his, not a sister. It hurt me deeply 
to realise suddenly that he was guilty all of a sudden; but as we 
grew up the world intruded more and more upon us, new lives 
began to impinge on our solitary world of palaces and king- 
doms. He was forced to go away for long periods. When he was 
absent I had nothing whatsoever except the darkness and what 
my memory of him could fill it with; somehow the treasures of 
his invention went all lustreless until he came back, his voice, 
his touch. All we knew of our parents, the sum of our know- 
ledge, was an old oak cupboard full of their clothes. They 
seemed enormous to us when we were small — the clothes of 

I 9 I 



giants, the shoes of giants. One day he said they oppressed him, 
these clothes. We did not need parents. And we took them out 
into the yard and made a bonfire of them in the snow. We both 
wept bitterly, I do not know why. We danced round the bon- 
fire singing an old hunting song with savage triumph and yet 
weeping." 

She was silent for a long moment, her head hanging in pro- 
found concentration over this ancient image, like a soothsayer 
gazing fixedly into the dark crystal of youth. Then she sighed 
and raised her head, saying: "I know why you hesitate. It is the 
last letter, isn't it? You see I counted them. Give it to me, 
Darley." 

I handed it to her without a word and she softly placed it in 
the fire saying: "It is over at last." 



92 



BOOK III 



As the summer burned away into autumn, and autumn 
f\ into winter once more we became slowly aware that the 
/ % war which had invested the city had begun slowly to 
JL A.ebb, to flow gradually away along the coast-roads 
fringing the desert, releasing its hold upon us and our pleasures. 
For receding like a tide it left its strange coprolitic trophies 
along the beaches which we had once used, finding them always 
white and deserted under the flying gulls. War had denied them 
to us for a long time; but now, when we rediscovered them, we 
found them littered with pulped tanks and twisted guns, and 
the indiscriminate wreckage of temporary supply harbours 
abandoned by the engineers to rot and rust under the desert sun, 
to sink gradually into the shifting dunes. It gave one a curious 
melancholy reassurance to bathe there now — as if among the 
petrified lumber of a Neolithic age: tanks like the skeletons of 
dinosaurs, guns standing about like outmoded furniture. The 
minefields constituted something of a hazard, and the Bedouin 
were often straying into them in the course of pasturing; once 
Clea swerved — for the road was littered with glistening frag- 
ments of shattered camel from some recent accident. But such 
occasions were rare, and as for the tanks themselves, though 
burned out they were tenantless. There were no human bodies 
in them. These had presumably been excavated and decently 
buried in one of the huge cemeteries which had grown up in 
various unexpected corners of the western desert like townships 
of the dead. The city, too, was finding its way back to its 
normal habits and rhythms, for the bombardments had now 
ceased altogether and the normal night-life of the Levant had 
begun once more to flower. And though uniforms were less 
abundant the bars and night clubs still plied a splendid trade 
with servicemen on leave. 

195 



My own eventless life, too, seemed to have settled itself into 
a natural routine-fed pattern, artificially divided by a private 
life which I had surrendered to my complete absorption in Clea, 
and an office life which, though not onerous, had little meaning 
to me. Little had changed: but yes, Maskelyne had at last 
managed to break his bonds and escape back to his regiment. 
He called on us, resplendent in uniform, to say goodbye, shyly 
pointing — not his pipe but a crisp new swagger-stick — at his 
tail-wagging colleague. "I told you he'd do it" said Telford 
with a triumphant sadness in his voice. "I always knew it." 
But Mountolive stayed on, apparently still "frozen' ' in his 
post. 

From time to time by arrangement I revisited the child at 
Karm Abu Girg to see how she was faring. To my delight I 
found that the transplantation, about which I had had many 
misgivings, was working perfectly. The reality of her present 
life apparently chimed with the dreams I had invented for her. 
It was all as it should be — the coloured playing-card characters 
among whom she could now number herself! If Justine re- 
mained a somewhat withdrawn and unpredictable figure of 
moods and silences it only added, as far as I could see, to the 
sombre image of a dispossessed empress. In Nessim she had 
realised a father. His image had gained definition by greater 
familiarity because of his human tendernesses. He was a de- 
lightful companion-father now, and together they explored the 
desert lands around the house on horseback. He had given her a 
bow and arrows, and a little girl of about her own age, Taor, as 
a body-servant and amah. The so-called palace, too, which we 
had imagined together, stood the test of reality magnificently. 
Its labyrinth of musty rooms and its ramshackle treasures were 
a perpetual delight. Thus with her own horses and servants, and 
a private palace to play in, she was an Arabian Nights queen 
indeed. She had almost forgotten the island now, so absorbed 
was she among these new treasures. I did not see Justine during 
these visits, nor did I try to do so. Sometimes however Nessim 

196 



was there, but he never accompanied us on our walks or rides, 
and usually the child came to the ford to meet me with a spare 
horse. 

In the Spring Balthazar, who had by now quite come to him- 
self and had thrown himself once more into his work, invited 
Clea and myself to take part in a ceremony which rather pleased 
his somewhat ironic disposition. This was the ceremonial 
placing of flowers on Capodistria's grave on the anniversary of 
the Great Porn's birthday. "I have the express authority of 
Capodistria himself' ' he explained. ' 'Indeed he himself always 
pays for the flowers every year/' It was a fine sunny day for the 
excursion and Balthazar insisted that we should walk. Though 
somewhat hampered by the nosegay he carried he was in good 
voice. His vanity in the matter of his hair had become too 
strong to withstand, and he had duly submitted to Mnemjian's 
ministrations, thus "rubbing out his age", as he expressed it. 
Indeed the change was remarkable. He was now, once more, the 
old Balthazar, with his sapient dark eyes turned ironically on 
the doings of the city. And no less on Capodistria from whom 
he had just received a long letter. "You can have no idea what 
the old brute is up to over the water. He has taken the Luci- 
ferian path and plunged into Black Magic. But I'll read it to 
you. His graveside is, now I come to think of it, a most appro- 
priate place to read his account of his experiments!" 

The cemetery was completely deserted in the sunshine. 
Capodistria had certainly spared no expense to make his grave 
imposing and had achieved a fearsome vulgarity of decoration 
which was almost mind- wounding. Such cherubs and scrolls, 
such floral wreaths. On the slab was engraved the ironic text: 
"Not Lost But Gone Before". Balthazar chuckled affectionately 
as he placed his flowers upon the grave and said "Happy 
Birthday" to it. Then he turned aside, removing coat and hat 
for the sun was high and bright, and together we sat on a bench 
under a cypress tree while Clea ate toffees and he groped in his 
pockets for the bulky typewritten packet which contained 

i 9 7 



Capodistria's latest and longest letter. "Clea" he said, "you 
must read it to us. I've forgotten my reading glasses. Besides, 
I would like to hear it through once, to see if it sounds less 
fantastic or more. Will you?" 

Obediently she took the close-typed pages and started 
reading. 

"My dear M.B." 

"The initials" interposed Balthazar "stand for the nickname 
which Pursewarden fastened on me — Melancholia Borealis, no 
less. A tribute to my alleged Judaic gloom. Proceed, my dear 
Clea." 

The letter was in French. 

"I have been conscious, my dear friend, that I owed you 
some account of my new life here, yet though I have written 
you fairly frequently I have got into the habit of evading the 
subject. Why? Well, my heart always sank at the thought of 
your derisive laugh. It is absurd, for I was never a sensitive man 
or quick to worry about the opinion of my neighbours. Another 
thing. It would have involved a long and tiresome explanation 
of the unease and unfamiliarity I always felt at the meetings of 
the Cabal which sought to drench the world in its abstract good- 
ness. I did not know then that my path was not the path of 
Light but of Darkness. I would have confused it morally or 
ethically with good and evil at that time. Now I recognise the 
path I am treading as simply the counterpoise — the bottom end 
of the see-saw, as it were — which keeps the light side up in the 
air. Magic! I remember you once quoting to me a passage (quite 
nonsensical to me then) from Paracelsus. I think you added at 
the time that even such gibberish must mean something. It 
does! 'True Alchemy which teaches how to make ( or O 
out of the five imperfect metals, requires no other materials but 
only the metals. The perfect metals are made out of the imper- 
fect metals, through them and with them alone; for with other 
things is Luna (phantasy) but in the metals is Sol (wisdom).' 

"I leave a moment's pause for your peculiar laugh, which in 

198 



the past I would not have been slow to echo! What a mountain 
of rubbish surrounding the idea of the tinctura physicorum, you 
would observe. Yes but. . . . 

"My first winter in this windy tower was not pleasant. The 
roof leaked. I did not have my books to solace me as yet. My 
quarters seemed rather cramped and I wondered about extend- 
ing them. The property on which the tower stands above the 
sea had also a straggle of cottages and outbuildings upon it; here 
lodged the ancient, deaf couple of Italians who looked after my 
wants, washed and cleaned and fed me. I did not want to turn 
them out of their quarters but wondered whether I could not 
convert the extra couple of barns attached to their abode. It was 
then that I found, to my surprise, that they had another lodger 
whom I had never seen, a strange and solitary creature who only 
went abroad at night, and wore a monk's cassock. I owe all my 
new orientation to my meeting with him. He is a defrocked 
Italian monk, who describes himself as a Rosicrucian and an 
alchemist. He lived here among a mountain of masonic manu- 
scripts — some of very great age — which he was in the process of 
studying. It was he who first convinced me that this line of 
enquiry was (despite some disagreeable aspects) concerned with 
increasing man's interior hold on himself, on the domains 
which lie unexplored within him; the comparison with every- 
day science is not fallacious, for the form of this enquiry is 
based as firmly on method — only with different premises! And 
if, as I say, it has some disagreeable aspects, why so has formal 
science — vivisection for instance. Anyway, here I struck up a 
rapport, and opened up for myself a field of study which grew 
more and more engrossing as the months went by. I also dis- 
covered at last something which eminently fitted my nature! 
Truthfully, everything in this field seemed to nourish and sus- 
tain me! Also I was able to be of considerable practical assistance 
to the Abbe* F. as I will call him, for some of these manuscripts 
(stolen from the secret lodges on Athos I should opine) were in 
Greek, Arabic and Russian — languages which he did not know 

199 



well. Our friendship ripened into a partnership. But it was 
many months before he introduced me to yet another strange, 
indeed formidable figure who was also dabbling in these 
matters. This was an Austrian Baron who lived in a large man- 
sion inland and who was busy (no, do not laugh) on the obscure 
problem which we once discussed — is it in De Natura Rerurti! I 
think it is — the generatio homunculi? He had a Turkish butler 
and famulus to help him in his experiments. Soon I became 
persona grata here also and was allowed to help them to the best 
of my ability. 

"Now this Baron — whom you would certainly find a strange 
and imposing figure, heavily bearded and with big teeth like 
the seeds of a corn-cob — this Baron had ... ah! my dear Bal- 
thazar, had actually produced ten homunculi which he called his 
'prophesying spirits'. They were preserved in the huge glass 
canisters which they use hereabouts for washing olives or to 
preserve fruit, and they lived in water. They stood on a long 
oaken rack in his studio or laboratory. They were produced or 
'patterned', to use his own expression, in the course of five 
weeks of intense labour of thought and ritual. They were ex- 
quisitely beautiful and mysterious objects, floating there like 
sea-horses. They consisted of a king, a queen, a knight, a monk, 
a nun, an architect, a miner, a seraph, and finally a blue spirit 
and a red one! They dangled lazily in these stout glass jars. A 
tapping fingernail seemed to alarm them. They were only about 
a span long, and as the Baron was anxious for them to grow to a 
greater size, we helped him to bury them in several cartloads of 
horse-manure. This great midden was sprinkled daily with an 
evil-smelling liquid which was prepared with great labour by 
the Baron and his Turk, and which contained some rather dis- 
gusting ingredients. At each sprinkling the manure began to 
steam as if heated by a subterranean fire. It was almost too hot 
to place one finger in it. Once every three days the Abbe* and the 
Baron spent the whole night praying and fumigating the mid- 
den with incense. When at last the Baron deemed this process 

200 



complete the bottles were carefully removed and returned to 
the laboratory shelves. All the homunculi had grown in size to 
such an extent that the bottles were now hardly big enough for 
them, and the male figures had come into possession of heavy 
beards. The nails of their fingers and toes had grown very long. 
Those which bore a human representation wore clothes appro- 
priate to their rank and style. They had a kind of beautiful 
obscenity floating there with an expression on their faces such as 
I have only once seen before — on the face of a Peruvian pickled 
human head! Eyes turned up into the skull, pale fish's lips 
drawn back to expose small perfectly formed teeth! In the 
bottles containing respectively the red and blue spirit there was 
nothing to be seen. All the bottles, by the way, were heavily 
sealed with oxbladders and wax bearing the imprint of a magic 
seal. But when the Baron tapped with his fingernail on the 
bottles and repeated some words in Hebrew the water clouded 
and began to turn red and blue respectively. The homunculi 
began to show their faces, to develop cloudily like a photo- 
graphic print, gradually increasing in size. The blue spirit was 
as beautiful as any angel, but the red wore a truly terrifying 
expression. 

' 'These beings were fed every three days by the Baron with 
some dry rose-coloured substance which was kept in a silver box 
lined with sandalwood. Pellets about the size of a dried pea. 
Once every week, too, the water in the bottles had to be emp- 
tied out; they had to be refilled (the bottles) with fresh rain- 
water. This had to be done very rapidly because during the few 
moments that the spirits were exposed to the air they seemed to 
get weak and unconscious, as if they were about to die like fish. 
But the blue spirit was never fed; while the red one received 
once a week a thimbleful of the fresh blood of some animal — a 
chicken I think. This blood disappeared at once in the water 
without colouring or even troubling it. As soon as this bottle 
was opened it turned turbid and dark and gave off the odour of 
rotten eggs! 

201 



"In the course of a couple of months these homunculi reached 
their full stature, the stage of prophecy — as the Baron calls it; 
then every night the bottles were carried into a small ruined 
chapel, situated in a grove at some distance from the house, and 
here a service was held and the bottles 'interrogated' on the 
course of future events. This was done by writing questions in 
Hebrew on slips of paper and pressing them to the bottle 
before the eyes of the homunculus; it was rather like exposing 
sensitized photographic paper to light. I mean it was not as if 
the beings read but divined the questions, slowly, with much 
hesitation. They spelled out their answers, drawing with a 
finger on the transparent glass, and these responses were copied 
down immediately by the Baron in a great commonplace book. 
Each homunculus was only asked questions appropriate to his 
station, and the red and blue spirits could only answer with a 
smile or a frown to indicate assent or dissent. Yet they seemed 
to know everything, and any question at all could be put to 
them. The King could only touch on politics, the monk religion 
. . . and so on. In this way I witnessed the compilation of what 
the Baron called 'the annals of Time' which is a document at 
least as impressive as that left behind him by Nostradamus. So 
many of these prophecies have proved true in these last short 
months that I can have little doubt about the rest also proving 
so. It is a curious sensation to peer thus into the future! 

"One day, by some accident, the glass jar containing the 
monk fell to the stone flags and was broken. The poor monk 
died after a couple of small painful respirations, despite all the 
efforts made by the Baron to save him. His body was buried in 
the garden. There was an abortive attempt to 'pattern' another 
monk but this was a failure. It produced a small leech-like 
object without vitality which died within a few hours. 

"A short while afterwards the King managed to escape from 
his bottle during the night; he was found sitting upon the 
bottle containing the Queen, scratching with his nails to get 
the seal away! He was beside himself, and very agile, though 

202 



weakening desperately from his exposure to the air. Neverthe- 
less he led us quite a chase among the bottles — which we were 
afraid of overturning. It was really extraordinary how nimble he 
was, and had he not become increasingly faint from being out of 
his native element I doubt whether we could have caught him. 
We did however and he was pushed, scratching and biting, back 
into his bottle, but not before he had severely scratched the 
Abbess chin. In the scrimmage he gave off a curious odour, as of 
a hot metal plate cooling. My finger touched his leg. It was of a 
wet and rubbery consistency, and sent a shiver of apprehension 
down my spine. 

"But now a mishap occurred. The Abbess scratched face be- 
came inflamed and poisoned and he went down with a high 
fever and was carried off to hospital where he lies at present, 
convalescing. But there was more to follow, and worse; the 
Baron, being Austrian, had always been something of a curi- 
osity here, and more especially now when the spy-mania which 
every war brings has reached its height. It came to my ears that 
he was to be thoroughly investigated by the authorities. He 
received the news with despairing calmness, but it was clear 
that he could not afford to have unauthorised persons poking 
about in his laboratory. It was decided to 'dissolve' the homun- 
culi and bury them in the garden. In the absence of the Abbe" I 
agreed to help him. I do not know what it was he poured into 
the bottles but all the flames of hell leaped up out of them until 
the whole ceiling of the place was covered in soot and cobwebs. 
The beings shrank now to the size of dried leeches, or the dried 
navel-cords . which sometimes village folk will preserve. The 
Baron groaned aloud from time to time, and the sweat stood 
out on his forehead. The groans of a woman in labour. At last 
the process was complete and at midnight the bottles were 
taken out and interred under some loose flags in the little 
chapel where, presumably, they must still be. The Baron has 
been interned, his books and papers sealed by the Custodians of 
Property. The Abbe" lies, as I said, in hospital. And D Well, my 

203 



Greek passport has made me less suspect than most people 
hereabouts. I have retired for the moment to my tower. There 
is still the mass of masonic data in the barns which the Abb£ 
inhabited; I have taken charge of these. I have written to the 
Baron once or twice but he has not, perhaps out of tact, replied 
to me; believing perhaps that my association with him might 
lead to harm. And so . . . well, the war rolls on about us. Its 
end and what follows it — right up to the end of this century — 
I know: it lies here beside me as I write, in question and answer 
form. But who would believe me if I published it all — and 
much less you, doctor of the empiric sciences, sceptic and 
ironist? As for the war — Paracelsus has said: 'Innumerable are 
the Egos of man; in him are angels and devils, heaven and hell, 
the whole of the animal creation, the vegetable and mineral 
kingdoms; and just as the little individual man may be dis- 
eased, so the great universal man has his diseases, which mani- 
fest themselves as the ills which affect humanity as a whole. 
Upon this fact is based the prediction of future events/ And so, 
my dear friend, I have chosen the Dark Path towards my own 
light. I know now that I must follow it wherever it leads! Isn't 
that something to have achieved? Perhaps not. But for me it 
truthfully seems so. But I hear that laughter! 

"Ever your devoted Da Capo".* 

"Now" said Clea "oblige with the laughter!" 

"What Pursewarden" I said, "called 'the melancholy 
laughter of Balthazar which betokens solipsism'." 

Balthazar did indeed laugh now, slapping his knee and 
doubling himself up like a jack knife. "That damned rogue, 
Da Capo" he said. "And yet, soyons raisonnables if that is indeed 
the expression — he wouldn't tell a pack of lies. Or perhaps he 
might. No, he wouldn't. Yet can you bring yourself to believe 
in what he says — you two?" 

"Yes" said Clea, and here we both smiled for her bondage 
to the soothsayers of Alexandria would naturally give her a pre- 
disposition towards the magic arts. "Laugh" she said quietly. 

204 



"To tell the truth" said Balthazar more soberly, "when one 
casts around the fields of so-called knowledge which we have 
partially opened up one is conscious that there may well be 
whole areas of darkness which may belong to the Paracelsian 
regions — the submerged part of the iceberg of knowledge. No, 
dammit, I must admit that you are right. We get too certain of 
ourselves travelling backwards and forwards -along the tram- 
lines of empirical fact. Occasionally one gets hit softly on the 
head by a stray brick which has been launched from some other 
region. Only yesterday, for example, Boyd told me a story 
which sounded no less strange: about a soldier who was buried 
last week. I could, of course, supply explanations which might 
fit the case, but not with any certainty. This young boy went 
on a week's leave to Cairo. He came back having had an enjoy- 
able time, or so he said. Next he developed an extraordinary 
intermittent fever with simply huge maximum temperatures. 
Within a week he died. A few hours before death a thick white 
cataract formed over his eyeballs with a sort of luminous red 
node over the retina. All the boy would repeat in the course of 
his delirium was the single phrase: 'She did it with a golden 
needle J Nothing but these words. As I say one could perhaps 
strap the case down clinically with a clever guess or two but . . . 
had I to be honest I would be obliged to admit that it did not 
exactly fit within an accepted category that I knew. Nor, by the 
way, did the autopsy give one anything more to go on: blood 
tests, spinal fluid, stomach etc. Not even a nice, familiar (yet 
itself perhaps inexplicable) meningeal disturbance. The brain 
was lovely and fresh! At least so Boyd says, and he took great 
pleasure in thoroughly exploring the young man. Mystery! Now 
what the devil could he have been doing on leave? It seems quite 
impossible to discover. His stay is not recorded at any of the 
hotels or army transit hostels. He spoke no language but Eng- 
lish. Those few days spent in Cairo are completely missing 
from the count. And then the woman with the golden needle?' ' 
"But in truth it is happening all the time, and I think you 

205 



are right' ' (this to Clea) "to insist obstinately on the existence 
of the dark powers and the fact that some people do scry as 
easily as I gaze down the barrel of my microscope. Not all, but 
some. And even quite stupid people, like your old Scobie, for 
example. Mind you, in my opinion, that was a rigmarole of the 
kind he produced sometimes when he was tipsy and wanted to 
show off — I mean the stuff supposedly about Narouz: that was 
altogether too dramatic to be taken seriously. And even if some 
of the detail were right he could have had access to it in the 
course of his duties. After all Nimrod did the proces verbal and 
that document must have been knocking around/ ' 

"What about Narouz?' ' I asked curiously, secretly piqued 
that Clea had confided things to Balthazar which she had kept 
from me. It was now that I noticed that Clea had turned quite 
white and was looking away. But Balthazar appeared to notice 
nothing himself and went plunging on. "It has the ingredients 
of a novelette — I mean about trying to drag you down into the 
grave with him. Eh, don't you think? And about the weeping 
you would hear." He broke off abruptly, noticing her expres- 
sion at last. "Goodness, Clea my dear" he went on in self- 
approach, "I hope I am not betraying a confidence. You sud- 
denly look upset. Did you tell me not to repeat the Scobie story?" 
He took both her hands and turned her round to face him. 

A spot of red had appeared in both her cheeks. She shook her 
head, though she said nothing, but bit her lips as if with vexa- 
tion. At last "No" she said, "there is no secret. I simply did 
not tell Darley because . . . well, it is silly as you say: anyway 
he doesn't believe in that sort of rubbish. I didn't want to seem 
stupider than he must find me." She leaned to kiss me apolo- 
getically on the cheek. She sensed my annoyance, as did Bal- 
thazar who hung his head and said: "I've talked out of turn. 
Damn! Now he will be angry with you." 

"Good heavens, no!" I protested. "Simply curious, that is 
all. I had no intention of prying, Clea." 

She made a gesture of anguished exasperation and said: "Very 

206 



well. It is of no importance. I will tell you the whole thing." 
She started speaking hastily, as if to dispose of a disagreeable 
and time-wasting subject. "It was during the last dinner I told 
you about. Before I went to Syria. He was tipsy, I don't deny it. 
He said what Balthazar has just told you, and he added a 
description of someone who suggested to me Nessim's brother. 
He said, marking the place with his thumbnail on his own lips: 
'His lips are split here, and I see him covered in little wounds, 
lying on a table. There is a lake outside. He has made up his 
mind. He will try and drag you to him. You will be in a dark 
place, imprisoned, unable to resist him. Yes, there is one near 
at hand who might aid you if he could. But he will not be 
strong enough/ >} Clea stood up suddenly and brought her story 
to an end with the air of someone snapping off a twig. "At this 
point he burst into tears" she said. 

It was strange what a gloom this nonsensical yet ominous 
recital put over our spirits; something troubling and distasteful 
seemed to invade that brilliant spring sunshine, the light keen 
air. In the silence that followed Balthazar gloomily folded and 
refolded his overcoat on his knee while Clea turned away to 
study the distant curve of the great harbour with its flotillas of 
cubist-smeared craft, and the scattered bright petals of the 
racing dinghies which had crossed the harbour boom, threading 
their blithe way towards the distant blue marker buoy. Alexan- 
dria was virtually at norm once more, lying in the deep back- 
water of the receding war, recovering its pleasures. Yet the day 
had suddenly darkened around us, oppressing our spirits — a 
sensation all the more exasperating because of its absurd cause. 
I cursed old Scobie's self-importance in setting up as a fortune- 
teller. 

"These gifts might have got him a bit further in his own 
profession had they been real" I said peevishly. 

Balthazar laughed, but even here there was a chagrined doubt 
in his laughter. His remorse at having stirred up this silly story 
was quite patent. 

207 



"Let us go" said Clea sharply. She seemed slightly annoyed 
as well, and for once disengaged her arm when I took it. We 
found an old horse-drawn gharry and drove slowly and silently 
into town together. 

"No damn it!" cried Balthazar at last. "Let us go down and 
have a drink by the harbour at least." And without waiting for 
answer from us he redirected the jarvey and set us mutely clip- 
clopping down the slow curves of the Grande Corniche towards 
the Yacht Club in the outer harbour of which was now to befall 
something momentous and terrible for us all. I remember it so 
clearly, this spring day without flaw; a green bickering sea 
lighting the minarets, softly spotted here and there by the 
dark gusts of a fine racing wind. Yes, with mandolines fretting 
in the Arab town, and every costume glowing as brightly as a 
child's coloured transfer. Within a quarter of an hour the mag- 
nificence of it was to be darkened, poisoned by unexpected — 
completely unmerited death. But if tragedy strikes suddenly 
the actual moment of its striking seems to vibrate on, extend- 
ing into time like the sour echoes of some great gong, numbing 
the spirit, the comprehension. Suddenly, yes, but yet how 
slowly it expands in the understanding — the ripples unrolling 
upon the reason in ever-widening circles of fear. And yet, all the 
time, outside the centre-piece of the picture, so to speak, with 
its small tragic anecdote, normal life goes on unheeding. (We 
did not even hear the bullets, for example. Their sullen twang 
was carried away on the wind.) 

Yet our eyes were drawn, as if by the lines-of-force of some 
great marine painting, to a tiny clutter of dinghies snubbing 
together in the lee of one of the battleships which hovered 
against the sky like a grey cathedral. Their sails flapped and 
tossed, idly as butterflies contending with the breeze. There 
was some obscure movement of oars and arms belonging to 
figures too small at this range to distinguish or recognise. Yet 
this tiny commotion had force to draw the eye — by who knows 
what interior premonition? And as the cab rolled silently along 

208 



the rim of the inner harbour we saw it unroll before us like 
some majestic seascape by a great master. The variety and dis- 
tinction of the small refugee craft from every corner of the 
Levant — their differing designs and rigs — gave it a brilliant 
sensuality and rhythm against the glittering water. Everything 
was breath-taking yet normal; tugs hooted, children cried, from 
the caf£s came the rattle of the trictrac boards and the voices of 
birds. The normality of an entire world surrounded that tiny 
central panel with its flicking sails, the gestures we could not 
interpret, the faint voices. The little craft tilted, arms rose and 
fell. 

"Something has happened' ' said Balthazar with his narrow 
dark eye upon the scene, and as if his phrase had affected the 
horse it suddenly drew to a halt. Besides ourselves on the dock- 
side only one man had also seen; he too stood gazing with 
curious open-mouthed distraction, aware that something out of 
the ordinary was afoot. Yet everywhere people bustled, the 
chandlers cried. At his feet three children played in com- 
plete absorption, placing marbles in the tramlines, hoping to 
see them ground to powder when the next tram passed. A 
water carrier clashed his brass mugs, crying: "Come, ye thirsty 
ones." And unobtrusively in the background, as if travelling on 
silk, a liner stole noiselessly down the green thoroughfare 
towards the open sea. 

"It's Pombal" cried Clea at last, in puzzled tones, and with 
a gesture of anxiety put her arm through mine. It was indeed 
Pombal. What had befallen them was this. They had been 
drifting about the harbour in his little dinghy with their cus- 
tomary idleness and inattention and had strayed too near to one 
of the French battleships, carried into its lee and off their 
course by an unexpected swoop of the wind. How ironically it 
had been planned by the invisible stage-masters who direct 
human actions, and with what speed! For the French ships, 
though captive, had still retained both their small-arms and a 
sense of shame, which made their behaviour touchy and un- 

209 



predictable. The sentries they mounted had orders to fire a 
warning shot across the bows of any craft which came within a 
dozen metres of any battleship. It was, then, only in response 
to orders that a sentry put a bullet through Pombal's sail as the 
little dinghy whirled down on its rogue course towards his ship. 
It was merely a warning, which intended no deliberate harm. 
And even now this might have . . . but no: it could not have 
fallen out otherwise. For my friend, overcome with rage and 
mortification, at being treated thus by these cowards and lack- 
bones of his own blood and faith, turned purple with indigna- 
tion, and abandoned his tiller altogether in order to stand pre- 
cariously upright and shake his huge fist, screaming: "Salauds!" 
and "Espkes de cons!" and — what was perhaps the definitive 
epithet — ' 'Laches!" 

Did he hear the bullets himself? It is doubtful whether in all 
the confusion he did, for the craft tilted, gybed, and turned 
about on another course, toppling him over. It was while he 
was lying there, recovering the precious tiller, that he noticed 
Fosca in the very act of falling, but with infinite slowness. 
Afterwards he said that she did not know she had been hit. 
She must have felt, perhaps, simply a vague and unusual dis- 
persion of her attention, the swift anaesthesia of shock which 
follows so swiftly upon the wound. She tilted like a high tower, 
and felt the sternsheets coming up slowly to press themselves 
to her cheek. There she lay with her eyes wide open, plump and 
soft as a wounded pheasant will lie, still bright of eye in spite 
of the blood running from its beak. He shouted her name, and 
felt only the immense silence of the word, for the little freshet 
had sharpened and was now rushing them landward. A new 
sort of confusion supervened, for other craft, attracted as flies 
are by wounds, began to cluster with cries of advice and com- 
miseration. Meanwhile Fosca lay with vague and open eyes, 
smiling to herself in the other kind of dream. 

And it was now that Balthazar suddenly awoke from his 
trance, struggled out of the cab without a word and began his 

210 



queer lurching, traipsing run across the dock to the little red 
field-ambulance telephone with its emergency line. I heard the 
small click of the receiver and the sound of his voice speaking, 
patient and collected. The summons was answered, too, with 
almost miraculous promptness, for the field-post with its 
ambulances was only about fifty yards away. I heard the sweet 
tinkle of the ambulance's bell, and saw it racing along the 
cobbles towards us. And now all faces turned once more to- 
wards that little convoy of dinghies — faces on which was 
written only patient resignation or dread. Pombal was on his 
knees in the sheets with bent head. Behind him, deftly steering, 
was Ali the boatman who had been the first to comprehend and 
offer his help. All the other dinghies, flying along on the same 
course, stayed grouped around Pombal's as if in active sym- 
pathy. I could read the name Manon which he had so proudly 
bestowed upon it, not six months ago. Everything seemed to 
have become bewildering, shaken into a new dimension which 
was swollen with doubts and fears. 

Balthazar stood on the quay in an agony of impatience, 
urging them in his mind to hurry. I heard his tongue clicking 
against the roof of his mouth tech. tsch, clicking softly and re- 
proachfully; a reproach, I wondered, directed against their 
slowness, or against life itself, its unpremeditated patterns? 

At last they were on us. One heard quite distinctly the sound 
of their breathing, and our own contribution, the snap of 
stretcher- thongs, the tinkle of polished steel, the small snap 
of heels studded with hobnails. It all mixed into a confusion of 
activity, the lowering and lifting, the grunts as dark hands 
found purchase on a rope to hold the dinghy steady, the sharp 
serrated edges of conflicting voices giving orders. ''Stand by" 
and " Gently now" all mixed with a distant foxtrot on a ship's 
radio. A stretcher swinging like a cradle, like a basket of fruit 
upon the dark shoulders of an Arab. And steel doors opening 
on a white throat. 

Pombal wore an air of studied vagueness, his features all dis- 

211 



persed and quite livid in colour. He flopped on to the quay as 
if he had been dropped from a cloud, falling to his knees and 
recovering. He wandered vaguely after Balthazar and the 
stretcher-bearers bleating like a lost sheep. I suppose it must 
have been her blood splashed upon the expensive white espa- 
drilles which he had bought a week before at Ghoshen's Em- 
porium. At such moments it is the small details which strike 
one like blows. He made a vague attempt to clamber into the 
white throat but was rudely ejected. The doors clanged in his 
face. Fosca belonged now to science and not to him. He waited 
with humbly bent head, like a man in church, until they should 
open once more and admit him. He seemed hardly to be 
breathing. I felt an involuntary desire to go to his side but 
Clea's arm restrained me. We all waited in great patience and 
submissiveness like children, listening to the vague movements 
within the ambulance, the noise of boots. Then at long last the 
doors opened and the weary Balthazar climbed down and said: 
"Get in and come with us." Pombal gave one wild glance about 
him and turning his pain-racked countenance suddenly upon 
Clea and myself, delivered himself of a single gesture — spread- 
ing his arms in uncomprehending hopelessness before clapping a 
fat hand over each ear, as if to avoid hearing something. Bal- 
thazar's voice suddenly cracked like parchment. "Get in" he 
said roughly, angrily, as if he were speaking to a criminal; and 
as they climbed into the white interior I heard him add in a 
lower voice, "She is dying." A clang of iron doors closing, and 
I felt Clea's hand turn icy in my own. 

So we sat, side by side and speechless on that magnificent 
spring afternoon which was already deepening into dusk. At 
last I lit a cigarette and walked a few yards along the quay 
among the chaffering Arabs who described the accident to each 
other in yelping tones. Ali was about to take the dinghy back 
to its moorings at the Yacht Club; all he needed was a light for 
his cigarette. He came politely towards me and asked if he 
might light up from me. As he puffed I noticed that the flies 

212 



had already found the little patch of blood on the dinghy's 
floorboards. "I'll clean it up" said Ali, noticing the direction 
of my glance; with a lithe cat-like leap he jumped aboard and 
unloosed the sail. He turned to smile and wave. He wanted to 
say "A bad business" but his English was inadequate. He 
shouted "Bad poison, sir." I nodded. 

Clea was still sitting in the gharry looking at her own hands. 
It was as if this sudden incident had somehow insulated us 
from one another. 

"Let's go back" I said at last, and directed the driver to turn 
back into the town we had so recently quitted. 

"Pray to goodness she will be all right" said Clea at last. 
"It is too cruel." 

"Balthazar said she was dying. I heard him." 

"He may be wrong." 

"He may be wrong." 

But he was not wrong, for both Fosca and the child were 
dead, though we did not get the news until later in the evening. 
We wandered listlessly about Clea's rooms, unable to concen- 
trate on anything. Finally she said: "You had better go back 
and spend the evening with him, don't you think." I was un- 
certain. "He would rather remain alone I imagine." 

"Go back" she said, and added sharply, "I can't bear you 

hanging about at a time like this. . . . O, darling, I've hurt you. 

It >} 

m sorry. 

"Of course you haven't, you fool. But I'll go." 
All the way down Rue Fuad I was thinking: such a small 
displacement of the pattern, a single human life, yet ft had 
power to alter so much. Literally, such an eventuality had 
occurred to none of us. We simply could not stomach it, fit it 
into the picture which Pombal himself had built up with such 
care. It poisoned everything this small stupid fact — even 
almost our affection for him, for it had turned to horror and 
sympathy! How inadequate as emotions they were, how power- 
less to be of use. My own instinct would have been to keep 

213 



away altogether! I felt as if I never wanted to see him again — in 
order not to shame him. Bad poison, indeed. I repeated Ali's 
phrase to myself over and over again. 

Pombal was already there when I got back, sitting in his gout- 
chair, apparently deep in thought. A full glass of neat whisky 
stood beside him which he did not seem to have touched. He 
had changed, however, into the familiar blue dressing-gown 
with the gold peacock pattern, and on his feet were his bat- 
tered old Egyptian slippers like golden shovels. I went into the 
room quite quietly and sat down opposite him without a word. 
He did not appear to actually look at me, yet somehow I felt 
that he was conscious of my presence; yet his eye was vague and 
dreamy, fixed on the middle distance, and his fingers softly 
played a five-finger exercise on each other. And still looking at 
the window he said, in a squeaky little voice — as if the words 
had power to move him although he did not quite know their 
meaning: * 'She's dead, Darley. They are both dead." I felt a 
sensation of a leaden weight about my heart. "C'est pas juste" 
he added absently and fell to pulling his side-beard with fat 
fingers. Quite unemotional, quite flat — like a man recovering 
from a severe stroke. Then he suddenly took a gulp of whisky 
and started up, choking and coughing. "It is neat" he said in 
surprise and disgust, and put the glass down with a long 
shudder. Then, leaning forward he began to scribble, taking up 
a pencil and pad which were on the table — whorls and lozenges 
and dragons. Just like a child. "I must go to confession to- 
morrow for the first time for ages" he said slowly, as if with 
infinite precaution. "I have told Hamid to wake me early. Will 
you mind if Clea only comes?" I shook my head. I understood 
that he meant to the funeral. He sighed with relief. "Bon" he 
said, and standing up took the glass of whisky. At that moment 
the door opened and the distraught Pordre appeared. In a flash 
Pombal changed. It was the presence of someone of his race 
perhaps. He gave a long chain of deep sobs. The two men em- 
braced muttering incoherent words and phrases, as if consoling 

214 



each other for a disaster which was equally wounding to both. 
The old diplomat raised his white womanish fist in the air and 
said suddenly, fatuously: "I have already protested strongly." 
To whom, I wondered? To the invisible powers which decree 
that things shall fall out this way or that? The words sputtered 
out meaninglessly on the chill air of the drawing-room. Pombal 
was talking. 

"I must write and tell him everything* ' he said. " Confess 
everything.' ' 

" Gaston" said his Chief sharply, reprovingly, "you must not 
do any such thing. It would increase his misery in prison. 
C 'est pas juste. Be advised by me: the whole matter must be 
forgotten.' ' 

"Forgotten!" cried my friend as if he had been stung by a 
bee. "You do not understand. Forgotten! He must know for 
her sake." 

"He must never know" said the older man. "Never." 

They stood for a long while holding hands and gazing about 
them distractedly through their tears; and at this moment, as if 
to complete the picture, the door opened to admit the porcine 
outlines of Father Paul — who was never to be found far from 
the centre of any scandal. He paused inside the doorway with 
an air of unction, with his features composed around an air of 
gluttonous self-satisfaction. "My poor boy" he said, clearing 
his throat. He made a vague gesture of his paw as if scattering 
Holy Water over us all and sighed. He reminded me of some 
great hairless vulture. Then surprisingly he clattered out a few 
phrases of consolation in Latin. 

I left my friend among these elephantine comforters, re- 
lieved in a way that there was no place for me in all this in- 
coherent parade of Latin commiserations. Simply pressing his 
hand once I slipped out of the flat and directed my thoughtful 
footsteps in the direction of Clea's room. 

The funeral took place next day. Clea came back, looking 
pale and strained. She threw her hat across the room and shook 

215 



out her hair with an impatient gesture — as if to expel the whole 
distasteful memory of the incident. Then she lay down ex- 
exhaustedly on the sofa and put her arm over her eyes. 

"It was ghastly* ' she said at last, "really ghastly, Darley. 
First of all it was a cremation. Pombal insisted on carrying out 
her wishes despite violent protests from Father Paul. What a 
beast that man is. He behaved as though her body had become 
Church property. Poor Pombal was furious. They had a 
terrible row settling the details I hear. And then ... I had 
never visited the new Crematorium! It is unfinished. It stands 
in a bit of sandy waste-land littered with straw and old lemon- 
ade bottles, and flanked by a trash heap of old car-bodies. It 
looks in fact like a hastily improvised furnace in a concentration 
camp. Horrid little brick-lined beds with half-dead flowers 
sprouting from the sand. And a little railway with runners for 
the coffin. The ugliness! And the faces of all those consuls and 
acting consuls! Even Pombal seemed quite taken aback by the 
hideousness. And the heat! Father Paul was of course in the 
foreground of the picture, relishing his role. And then with an 
incongruous squeaking the coffin rolled away down the garden 
path and swerved into a steel hatch. We hung about, first on one 
leg then on the other; Father Paul showed some inclination to 
fill this awkward gap with impromptu prayers but at that 
moment a radio in a nearby house started playing Viennese 
waltzes. Attempts were made by various chauffeurs to locate 
and silence it, but in vain. Never have I felt unhappier than 
standing in this desolate chicken run in my best clothes. There 
was a dreadful charred smell from the furnace. I did not know 
then that Pombal intended to scatter the ashes in the desert, 
and that he had decided that I alone would accompany him on 
this journey. Nor, for that matter, did I know that Father Paul 
— who scented a chance of more prayers — had firmly made up 
his mind to do so as well. All that followed came as a surprise. 

"Well finally the casket was produced — and what a casket! 
That was a real poke in the eye for us. It was like a confec- 

216 



doner's triumphant effort at something suitable for inexpensive 
chocolates. Father Paul tried to snatch it, but poor Pombal held 
on to it firmly as we trailed towards the car. I must say, here 
Pombal showed some backbone. 'Not you' he said as the priest 
started to climb into the car. Tm going alone with Clea.' He 
beckoned to me with his head. 

' 'My son' said Fathet Paul in a low grim voice, 'I shall 
come too.' 

'You won't' said Pombal. 'You've done your job.' 
1 'My son, I am coming' said this obstinate wretch. 

"For a moment it seemed that all might end with an exchange 
of blows. Pombal shook his beard at the priest and glared at 
him with angry eyes. I climbed into the car, feeling extremely 
foolish. Then Pombal pushed Father Paul in the best French 
manner — hard in the chest — and climbed in, banging the door. 
A susurrus went up from the assembled consuls at this public 
slight to the cloth, but no word was uttered. The priest was 
white with rage and made a sort of involuntary gesture — as if 
he were going to shake his fist at Pombal, but thought better 
of it. 

"We were off; the chauffeur took the road to the eastern 
desert, acting apparently on previous instructions. Pombal sat 
quite still with this ghastly honuonnilre on his knees, breathing 
through his nose and with half-closed eyes. As if he were 
recovering his self composure after all the trials of the morning. 
Then he put out his hand and took mine, and so we sat, 
silently watching the desert unroll on either side of the car. 
We went quite far out before he told the chauffeur to stop. 
He was breathing rather heavily. We got out and stood for a 
desultory moment at the roadside. Then he took a step or two 
into the sand and paused, looking back. 'Now I shall do it' he 
said, and broke into his fat shambling run which carried him 
about twenty yards into the desert. I said hurriedly to the 
chauffeur, 'Drive on for five minutes, and then come back for 
us/ The sound of the car starting did not make Pombal turn 

217 



round. He had slumped down on his knees, like a child playing 
in a sand-pit; but he stayed quite still for a long' time. I could 
hear him talking in a low confidential voice, though whether 
he was praying or reciting poetry I could not tell. It felt des- 
perately forlorn on that empty desert road with the heat shim- 
mering up from the tarmac. 

"Then he began to scrabble about in the sand before him, to 
pick up handfuls like a Moslem and pour it over his own head. 
He was making a queer moaning noise. At last he lay face 
downwards and quite still. The minutes ticked by. Far away 
in the distance I could hear the car coming slowly towards us — 
at a walking pace. 

" 'Pombal' I said at last. There was no reply. I walked across 
the intervening space, feeling my shoes fill up with the burning 
sand, and touched him on the shoulder. At once he stood up 
and started dusting himself. He looked dreadfully old all of a 
sudden. 'Yes' he said with a vague, startled glance all round 
him, as if for the first time he realised where he was. 'Take me 
home, Clea.' I took his hand — as if I were leading a blind man 
— and tugged him slowly back to the car which by now had 
arrived. 

"He sat beside me with a dazed look for a long time until, as 
if suddenly touched to the quick by a memory, he began to 
howl like a little boy who has cut his knee. I put my arms 
round him. I was so glad you weren't there — your Anglo-Saxon 
soul would have curled up at the edges. Yet he was repeating: 
'It must have looked ridiculous. It must have looked ridiculous.' 
And all of a sudden he was laughing hysterically. His beard 
was full of sand. 'I suddenly remembered Father Paul's face' 
he explained, still giggling in the high hysterical tones of a 
schoolgirl. Then he suddenly took a hold on himself, wiped his 
eyes, and sighing sadly said: 'I am utterly washed out, utterly 
exhausted. I feel I could sleep for a week.' 

"And this is presumably what he is going to do. Balthazar 
has given him a strong sleeping draught to take. I dropped him 

218 



at his flat and the car brought me on here. I'm hardly less 
exhausted than he. But thank God it is all over. Somehow he 
will have to start his life all over again." 

As if to illustrate this last proposition the telephone rang and 
Pombal's voice, weary and confused, said: "Darley, is that 
you? Good. Yes, I thought you would be there. Before I went to 
sleep I wanted to tell you, so that we could make arrangements 
about the flat. Pordre is sending me into Syria en mission. I leave 
early in the morning. If I go this way I will get allowances and 
be able to keep up my part of the flat easily until I come back. 
Eh?" 

"Don't worry about it" I said. 

"It was just an idea." 

"Sleep now." 

There was a long silence. Then he added: "But of course I 
will write to you, eh? Yes. Very well. Don't wake me if you 
come in this evening." I promised not to. 

But there was hardly any need for the admonition for when I 
returned to the flat later that night he was still up, sitting in 
his gout-chair with an air of apprehension and despair. "This 
stuff of Balthazar's is no good" he said. "It is mildly emetic, 
that is all. I am getting more drowsy from the whisky. But 
somehow I don't want to go to bed. Who knows what dreams 
I shall have?" But I at last persuaded him to get into bed; he 
agreed on condition that I stayed and talked to him until he 
dozed off. He was relatively calm now, and growing increas- 
ingly drowsy. He talked in a quiet relaxed tone, as one might 
talk to an imaginary friend while under anaesthetic. 

"I suppose it will all pass. Everything does. In the very end, 
it passes. I was thinking of other people in the same position. 
But for some it does not pass easily. One night Liza came here. 
I was startled to find her on the doorstep with those eyes which 
give me the creeps — like an eyeless rabbit in a poultry shop. 
She wanted me to take her to her brother's room in the Mount 
Vulture Hotel. She said she wanted to 'see' it. I asked what she 

219 



would see. She said, with anger, 'I have my own way of seeing/ 
Well I had to do it. I felt it would please Mountolive perhaps. 
But I did not know then that the Mount Vulture was no longer 
a hotel. It had been turned into a brothel for the troops. We 
were half-way up the stairs before the truth dawned on me. 
All these naked girls, and half-dressed sweating soldiers with 
their hairy bodies; their crucifixes tinkling against their iden- 
tity discs. And the smell of sweat and rum and cheap scent. I 
said we must get out, for the place had changed hands, but she 
stamped her foot and insisted with sudden anger. Well, we 
climbed the stairs. Doors were open on every landing, you 
could see everything. I was glad she was blind. At last we came 
to his room. It was dark. On his bed there lay an old woman 
asleep with a hashish pipe beside her. It smelt of drains. She, 
Liza, was very excited. 'Describe it' she told me. I did my best. 
She advanced towards the bed. 'There is a woman asleep there' 
I said, trying to pull her back. 'This is a house of ill fame now, 
Liza, I keep telling you.' Do you know what she said? 'So much 
the better.' I was startled. She pressed her cheek to the pillow 
beside the old woman, who groaned all at once. Liza stroked 
her forehead as if she were stroking a child and said 'There now. 
Sleep.' Then she came slowly and hesitantly to my hand. She 
gave a curious grin and said: 'I wanted to try and take his 
imprint from the pillow. But it was a useless idea. One must 
try everything to recover memory. It has so many hiding- 
places.' I did not know what she meant. We started downstairs 
again. On the second landing I saw some drunken Australians 
coming up. I could see from their faces that there was going to 
be trouble. One of their number had been cheated or some- 
thing. They were terribly drunk. I put my arms around Liza 
and pretended we were making love in a corner of the landing 
until they passed us safely. She was trembling, though whether 
from fear or emotion I could not tell. And she said 'Tell me 
about his women. What were they like?' I gave her a good hard 
shake. 'Now you are being banal' I said. She stopped trembling 

220 



and went white with anger. In the street she said 'Get me a 
taxi. I do not like you/ I did and off she went without a word. 
I regretted my rudeness afterwards, for she was suffering; at the 
time things happen too fast for one to take them into account. 
And one never knows enough about people and their sufferings 
to have the right response ready at the moment. Afterwards I 
said many sympathetic things to her in my mind. But too late. 
Always too late." 

A slight snore escaped his lips and he fell silent. I was about 
to switch off his bedside lamp and tip-toe from his room when 
he continued to speak, only from far away, re-establishing the 
thread of his thought in another context: "And when Melissa 
was dying Clea spent all day with her. Once she said to Clear 
'Darley made love with a kind of remorse, of despair. I suppose 
he imagined Justine. He never excited me like other men did. 
Old Cohen, for example, he was just dirty-minded, yet his lips 
were always wet with wine. I liked that. It made me respect 
him for he was a man. But Pursewarden treated me like precious 
china, as if he were afraid he might break me, like some 
precious heirloom. How good it was for once to be at rest!' " 



221 



II 



So the year turned on its heel, through a winter of racing 
winds, frosts keener than grief, hardly preparing us for 
that last magnificent summer which followed the spring 
so swiftly. It came curving in, this summer, as if from 
some long-forgotten latitude first dreamed of in Eden, miracu- 
lously rediscovered among the slumbering thoughts of man- 
kind. It rode down upon us like some famous snow-ship of the 
mind, to drop anchor before the city, its white sails folding like 
the wings of a seabird. Ah! I am hunting for metaphors which 
might convey something of the piercing happiness too seldom 
granted to those who love; but words, which were first invented 
against despair, are too crude to mirror the properties of some- 
thing so profoundly at peace with itself, at one with itself. 
Words are the mirrors of our discontents merely; they contain 
all the huge unhatched eggs of the world's sorrows. Unless 
perhaps it were simpler to repeat under one's breath some lines 
torn from a Greek poem, written once in the shadow of a sail, 
on a thirsty promontory in Byzantium. Something like . . . 

Black bread, clear water, blue air. 
Calm throat incomparably fair. 
Mind folded upon mind 
Eyes softly closed on eyes. 
Lashes a-tremble, bodies bare. 

But they English badly; and unless one hears them in Greek 
falling softly, word by word, from a mouth made private and 
familiar by the bruised endearments of spent kisses they must 
remain always simply charmless photographs of a reality which 
overreaches the realm of the poet's scope. Sad that all the bril- 
liant plumage of that summer remains beyond capture — for 

222 



one's old age will have little but such memories upon which to 
found its regretful happinesses. Will memory clutch it — that 
incomparable pattern of days, I wonder? In the dense violet 
shadow of white sails, under the dark noon-lantern of figs, on 
the renowned desert roads where the spice caravans march and 
the dunes soothe themselves away to the sky, to catch in their 
dazed sleep the drumming of gulls' wings turning in spray? Or 
in the cold whiplash of the waters crushing themselves against the 
fallen pediments of forgotten islands? In the night-mist falling 
upon deserted harbours with the old Arab seamarks pointing 
eroded fingers? Somewhere, surely, the sum of these things will 
still exist. There were no hauntings yet. Day followed day upon 
the calendar of desire, each night turning softly over in its 
sleep to reverse the darkness and drench us once more in the 
royal sunlight. Everything conspired to make it what we needed. 

It is not hard, writing at this remove in time, to realise that 
it had all already happened, had been ordained in such a way and 
in no other. This was, so to speak, only its "coming to pass' — 
its stage of manifestation. But the scenario had already been 
devised somewhere, the actors chosen, the timing rehearsed 
down to the last detail in the mind of that invisible author — 
which perhaps would prove to be only the city itself: the 
Alexandria of the human estate. The seeds of future events are 
carried within ourselves. They are implicit in us and unfold 
according to the laws of their own nature. It is hard to believe, 
I know, when one thinks of the perfection of that summer and 
what followed it. 

Much had to do with the discovery of the island. The island! 
How had it eluded us for so long? There was literally not a 
corner of this coast which we did not know, not a beach we had 
not tried, not an anchorage we had not used. Yet it had been 
there, staring us in the face. "If you wish to hide something" 
says the Arabic proverb "hide it in the sun's eye." It lay, not 
hidden at all, somewhat to the west of the little shrine of Sidi 
El Agami — the white scarp with the snowy butt of a tomb 

223 



emerging from a straggle of palms and figlets. It was simply an 
upshouldered piece of granite pushed up from the seabed by an 
earthquake or some submarine convulsion in the distant past. 
Of course, when the sea ran high it would be covered; but it is 
curious that it remains to this day unmarked on the Admiralty 
charts, for it would constitute quite a hazard to craft of medium 
draught. 

It was Clea who first discovered the little island of Narouz. 
"Where has this sprung from?" she asked with astonishment; 
her brown wrist swung the cutter's tiller hard over and carried 
us fluttering down into its lee. The granite boulder was tall 
enough for a windbreak. It made a roundel of still blue water 
in the combing tides. On the landward side there was a crude 
N carved in the rock above an old eroded iron ring which, with 
a stern anchor out to brace her, served as a secure mooring. It 
would be ridiculous to speak of stepping ashore for the "shore* ' 
consisted of a narrow strip of dazzling white pebbles no larger 
than a fireplace. "Yes, it is, it is Narouz' island" she cried, 
beside herself with delight at the discovery— for here as last 
was a place where she could fully indulge her taste for solitude. 
Here one would be as private as a seabird. The beach faced 
landward. One could see the whole swaying line of the coast 
with its ruined Martello towers and dunes travelling away to 
ancient Taposiris. We unpacked our provisions with delight 
for here we could swim naked and sunbathe to our heart's 
content without interruption. 

Here that strange and solitary brother of Nessim had spent 
his time fishing. "I always wondered where it could be this 
island of his. I thought perhaps it lay westerly beyond Abu El 
Suir. Nessim could not tell me. But he knew there was a deep 
rock-pool with a wreck." 

"There is an N carved here." 

Clea clapped her hands with delight and struggled out of her 
bathing costume. "I'm sure of it. Nessim said that for months 
he was fighting a duel with some big fish he couldn't identify. 

224 



That was when he gave me the harpoon-gun which Narouz 
owned. Isn't it strange? I've always carried it in the locker 
wrapped in an oilskin. I thought I might shoot something one 
day. But it is so heavy I can't manage it under water." 

"What sort of fish was it?" 

"I don't know." 

But she scrambled back to the cutter and produced the bulky 
package of greased rags in which this singular weapon was 
wrapped. It was an ugly-looking contrivance, a compressed-air 
rifle no less, with a hollow butt. It fired a slim steel harpoon 
about a metre and a half in length. It had been made to speci- 
fications for him in Germany. It looked deadly enough to kill 
quite a large fish. 

"Pretty horrible looking" she said, eating an orange. 

"We must try it." 

"It's too heavy for me. Perhaps you will manage it. I found 
that the barrel lagged in the water. I couldn't bring it to bear 
properly. But he was a marksman, so Nessim said, and shot a 
lot of quite large fish. But there was one, a very big one, which 
made infrequent appearances. He watched and waited in am- 
bush for it for months. He had several shots at it but always 
missed. I hope it wasn't a shark — I'm scared of them." 

"There aren't many in the Mediterranean. It is down the 
Red Sea that you get them in numbers." 

"Nevertheless I keep a sharp eye out." 

It was too heavy an instrument, I decided, to lug about under 
water; besides I had no interest in shooting fish. So I wrapped 
and stowed it once more in the cutter's ample locker. She lay 
there naked in the sunlight, drowsing like a seal, to smoke a 
cigarette before exploring further. The rock-pool glowed be- 
neath the glimmering keel of the boat like a quivering emerald, 
the long ribbons of milky light penetrating it slowly, stealing 
down like golden probes. About four fathoms, I thought, and 
drawing a deep breath rolled over and let my body wangle 
downwards like a fish, not using my arms. 

225 



Its beauty was spell-binding. It was like diving into the nave 
of a cathedral whose stained-glass windows filtered the sun- 
light through a dozen rainbows. The sides of the amphitheatre 
— for it opened gradually towards the deep sea — seemed as if 
carved by some heartsick artist of the Romantic Age into a 
dozen half-finished galleries lined with statues. Some of these 
were so like real statuary that I thought for a moment that I 
had made an archaeological find. But these blurred caryatids 
were wave-born, pressed and moulded by the hazard of the 
tides into goddesses and dwarfs and clowns. A light marine 
fucus of brilliant yellow and green had bearded them — shallow 
curtains of weed which swung lightly in the tide, parting and 
closing, as if to reveal their secrets suggestively and then cover 
them again. I pushed my fingers through this scalp of dense and 
slippery foliage to press them upon the blind face of a Diana or 
the hooked nose of a mediaeval dwarf. The floor of this 
deserted palace was of selenite plastic clay, soft to the touch and 
in no way greasy. Terra-cotta baked in a dozen hues of mauve 
and violet and gold. Inside close to the island it was not deep — 
perhaps a fathom and a half — but it fell away steeply where the 
gallery spread out to the sea, and the deeper lining of water 
faded from emerald to apple green, and from Prussian blue to 
black, suggesting great depth. Here, too, was the wreck of 
which Clea had spoken. I had hopes of finding perhaps a 
Roman amphora or two, but it was not alas a very old ship. I 
recognised the flared curve of the poop as an Aegean design — 
the type of caique which the Greeks call ' trecbandiri' . She had 
been rammed astern. Her back was broken. She was full of a 
dead weight of dark sponges. I tried to find the painted eyes on 
the prow and a name, but they had vanished. Her wood was 
crawling with slime and every cranny winked full of hermit 
crabs. She must have belonged to sponge fishers of Kalymnos I 
thought, for each year their fleet crosses to fish the African 
coast and carry its haul back for processing in the Dodecanese 
Islands. 

226 



A blinding parcel of light struck through the ceiling now and 
down flashed the eloquent body of Clea, her exploding coils of 
hair swerved up behind her by the water's concussion, her arms 
spread. I caught her and we rolled and sideslipped down in each 
other's arms, playing like fish until lack of breath drove us up- 
wards once more into the sunlight. To sit at last panting in the 
shallows, gazing with breathless delight at each other. 

"What a marvellous pool." She clapped her hands in delight. 

"I saw the wreck." 

And climbing back to the little sickle of beach with its warm 
pebbles with her drenched thatch of hair swinging behind her 
she said: 'I've thought of another thing. This must be Timon- 
ium. I wish I could remember the details more clearly.' 

"What is that?" 

"They've never found the site, you know. I am sure this 
must be it. O let us believe that it is, shall we? When Antony 
came back defeated from Actium — where Cleopatra fled with 
her fleet in panic and tore open his battle-line, leaving him at 
the mercy of Octavian; when he came back after that un- 
accountable failure of nerve, and when there was nothing for 
them to do but to wait for the certain death which would follow 
upon Octavian's arrival — why he built himself a cell on an 
islet. It was named after a famous recluse and misanthrope — 
perhaps a philosopher? — called Timon. And here he must have 
spent his leisure — here, Darley, going over the whole thing again 
and again in his mind. That woman with the extraordinary 
spells she was able to cast. His life in ruins! And then the 
passing of the God, and all that, bidding him to say goodbye to 
her, to Alexandria — a whole world!" 

The brilliant eyes smiling a little wistfully interrogated mine. 
She put her fingers to my cheek. 

"Are you waiting for me to say that it is?" 

tt-lT ft 

Yes. 
"Very well. It is." 
Kiss me. 

227 



"Your mouth tastes of oranges and wine." 

It was so small, the beach — hardly bigger than a bed. It was 
strange to make love thus with one's ankles in blue water and 
the hot sun blazing on one's back. Later we made one of many 
desultory attempts to locate the cell, or something which might 
correspond to her fancy, but in vain; on the seaward side lay a 
tremendous jumble of granite snags, falling steeply into black 
water. A thick spoke of some ancient harbour level perhaps 
which explained the wind-and-sea-break properties of the 
island. It was so silent, one heard nothing but the faint stir of 
wind across our ears, distant as the echo of some tiny seashell. 
Yes, and sometimes a herring gull flew over to judge the depth 
of the beach as a possible theatre of operations. But for the rest 
the sun-drunk bodies lay, deeply asleep, the quiet rhythms of 
the blood responding only to the deeper rhythms of sea and sky. 
A haven of animal contents which words can never compass. 

It is strange, too, to remember what a curious sea-engendered 
rapport we shared during that memorable summer. A delight 
almost as deep as the bondage of kisses — to enter the rhythm 
of the waters together, responding to each other and the play of 
the long tides. Clea had always been a fine swimmer, I a poor 
one. But thanks to my period spent in Greece I too was now 
expert, more than a match for her. Under water we played and 
explored the submarine world of the pool, as thoughtlessly as 
fishes of the fifth day of the Creation. Eloquent and silent 
water-ballets which allowed us to correspond only by smile and 
gesture. The water-silences captured and transformed every- 
thing human in movement, so that we were like the coloured 
projections of undines painted upon these brilliant screens of 
rock and weed, echoing and copying the water-rhythms. Here 
thought itself perished, was converted into a fathomless content 
in physical action. I see the bright figure travelling like a star 
across this twilit firmament, its hair combed up and out in a 
rippling whorl of colour. 

But not only here, of course. When you are in love with one 

228 



of its inhabitants a city can become a world. A whole new 
geography of Alexandria was born through Clea, reviving old 
meanings, renewing ambiences half forgotten, laying down like 
a rich wash of colour a new history, a new biography to replace 
the old one. Memory of old caf£s along the seafront by bronze 
moonlight, their striped awnings a-flutter with the midnight 
sea-breeze. To sit and dine late, until the glasses before one had 
brimmed with moonlight. In the shadow of a minaret, or on 
some strip of sand lit by the twinkle of a paraffin lamp. Or 
gathering the masses of shallow spring blossom on the Cape of 
Figs— brilliant cyclamen, brilliant anemone. Or standing to- 
gether in the tombs of Kom El Shugafa inhaling the damp 
exhalations of the darkness which welled out of those strange 
subterranean resting-places of Alexandrians long dead; tombs 
carved out of the black chocolate soil, one upon the other, like 
bunks in a ship. Airless, mouldy and yet somehow piercingly cold. 
("Hold my hand/') But if she shivered it was not then with 
the premonitions of death, but with the sheer weight of the 
gravid earth piled above us metre upon metre. Any creature of 
the sunlight would shiver so. That brilliant summer frock 
swallowed by the gloom. "I'm cold. Let us go." Yes, it was 
cold down there. But with what pleasure one stepped from the 
darkness into the roaring, anarchic life of the open street once 
more. So the sun-god must have risen, shaking himself free 
from the damp clutch of the soil, smiling up at the printed blue 
sky which spelt travel, release from death, renewal in the life of 
common creatures. 

Yes, but the dead are everywhere. They cannot be so simply 
evaded. One feels them pressing their sad blind fingers in 
deprivation upon the panels of our secret lives, asking to be 
remembered and re-enacted once more in the life of the flesh — 
encamping among our heartbeats, invading our embraces. We 
carry in ourselves the biological trophies they bequeathed us by 
their failure to use up life — alignment of an eye, responsive 
curve of a nose; or in still more fugitive forms like someone's 

229 



dead laugh, or a dimple which excites a long-buried smile. The 
simplest of these kisses we exchanged had a pedigree of death. 
In them we once more befriended forgotten loves which 
struggled to be reborn. The roots of every sigh are buried in 
the ground. 

And when the dead invade? For sometimes they emerge in 
person. That brilliant morning, for example, with everything 
so deceptively normal, when bursting from the pool like a 
rocket she gasped, deathly pale: "There are dead men down there": 
frightening me! Yet she was not wrong, for when I mustered 
the courage to go down myself and look — there they were in 
very truth, seven of them, sitting in the twilight of the basin 
with an air of scrupulous attention, as if listening to some 
momentous debate which would decide everything for them. 
This conclave of silent figures formed a small semicircle across 
the outer doorway of the pool. They had been roped in sacks 
and leadweighted at the feet, so that now they stood upright, 
like chess pieces of human size. One has seen statues covered in 
this way, travelling through a city on a lorry, bound for some 
sad provincial museum. Slightly crouched, responding to the 
ligatures which bound them, and faceless, they nevertheless 
stood, flinching and flickering softly like figures in an early 
silent film. Heavily upholstered in death by the coarse canvas 
wrappers which bound them. 

They turned out to be Greek sailors who had been bathing 
from their corvette when, by some accident, a depth-charge had 
been detonated, killing them instantly by concussion. Their 
unmarked bodies, glittering like mackerel, had been harvested 
laboriously in an old torpedo net, and laid out upon dripping 
decks to dry before burial. Flung overboard once more in the 
traditional funeral dress of mariners the curling tide had 
brought them to Narouz' island. 

It will sound strange, perhaps, to describe how quickly we 
got used to these silent visitants of the pool. Within a matter 
of days we had accommodated them, accorded them a place of 

230 



their own. We swam between them to reach the outer water, 
bowing ironically to their bent attentive heads. 

It was not to flout death — it was rather that they had become 
friendly and appropriate symbols of the place, these patient, 
intent figures. Neither their thick skin-parcels of canvas, nor 
the stout integuments of rope which bound them showed any 
sign of disintegration. On the contrary they were covered by a 
dense silver dew, like mercury, which heavily proofed canvas 
always collects when it is immersed. We spoke once or twice of 
asking the Greek naval authorities to remove them to deeper 
water, but by long experience I knew that we should find them 
un-co-operative if we tried, and the subject was dropped by 
common consent. Once I thought I saw the flickering shadow 
of a great catfish moving among them but I must have been 
mistaken. We even thought later of giving them names, but 
were deterred by the thought that they must already have 
names of their own — the absurd names of ancient sophists and 
generals like Anaximander, Plato, Alexander. . . . 

So this halcyon summer moved towards its end, free from 
omens — the long sunburnt ranks of marching days. It was, I 
think, in the late autumn that Maskelyne was killed in a desert 
sortie, but this was a passing without echoes for me — so little 
substance had he ever had in my mind as a living personage. It 
was, in very truth, a mysterious thing to find Telford sitting 
red-eyed at his desk one afternoon repeating brokenly: "The 
old Brig's copped it. The poor old Brig" and wringing his 
purple hands together. It was hard to know what to say. Telford 
went on, with a kind of incoherent wonder in his voice that was 
endearing. "He had no-one in the world. D'you know what? 
He gave me as his next-of-kin." He seemed immeasurably 
touched by this mark of friendship. Nevertheless it was with a 
reverent melancholy that he went through Maskelyne's exigu- 
ous personal effects. There was little enough to inherit save a 
few civilian clothes of unsuitable size, several campaign medals 
and stars, and a credit account of fifteen pounds in the Totten- 

231 



ham Court Road Branch of Lloyds Bank. More interesting 
relics to me were those contained in a little leather wallet — the 
tattered pay-book and parchment certificate of discharge which 
had belonged to his grandfather. The story they told had the 
eloquence of a history which unfolded itself within a tradition. 
In the year 1 86 1 this now forgotten Suffolk farm-boy had en- 
listed at Bury St. Edmunds. He served in the Coldstream 
Guards for thirty-two years, being discharged in 1893. During 
his service he was married in the Chapel of the Tower of 
London and his wife bore him two sons. There was a faded 
photograph of him taken on his return from Egypt in 1882. It 
showed him dressed in white pith helmet, red jacket and blue 
serge trousers with smart black leather gaiters and pipe-clayed 
cross belts. On his breast was pinned the Egyptian War Medal 
with a clasp for the battle of Tel-el-Kebir and the Khedive's 
Star. Of Maskelyne's own father there was no record among 
his effects. 

"It's tragic" said little Telford with emotion. "Mavis 
couldn't stop crying when I told her. She only met him twice. 
It shows what an effect a man of character can have on you. He 
was always the perfect gentleman, was the Brig." But I was 
brooding over this obscure faded figure in the photograph with 
his grim eyes and heavy black moustache, with the pipe-clayed 
cross belts and the campaign medals. He seemed to lighten the 
picture of Maskelyne himself, to give it focus. Was it not, I 
wondered, a story of success — a success perfectly complete 
within the formal pattern of something greater than the in- 
dividual life, a tradition? I doubted whether Maskelyne him- 
self could have wanted things to fall out otherwise. In every 
death there is the grain of something to be learned. Yet 
Maskelyne's quiet departure made little impact on my feelings, 
though I did what I could to soothe the forlorn Telford. But the 
tide-lines of my own life were now beginning to tug me invis- 
ibly towards an unforeseeable future. Yes, it was this beautiful 
autumn, with its torrent of brass brown leaves showering down 

232 



from the trees in the public gardens, that Clea first became a 
matter of concern to me. Was it, in truth, because she heard the 
weeping? I do not know. She never openly admitted it. At 
times I tried to imagine that I heard it myself — this frail cry of 
a small child, or a pet locked out: but I knew that I heard 
nothing, absolutely nothing. Of course one could look at it in a 
matter-of-fact way and class it with the order of natural events 
which time revises and renews according to its own caprices. I 
mean love can wither like any other plant. Perhaps she was 
simply falling out of love? But in order to record the manner of 
its falling out I feel almost compelled to present it as some- 
thing else — preposterous as it may sound — as a visitation of an 
agency, a power initiated in some uncommon region beyond the 
scope of the ordinary imagination. At any rate its onset was 
quite definitive, marked up like a date on a blank wall. It was 
November the fourteenth, just before dawn. We had been 
together during the whole of the previous day, idling about the 
city, gossiping and shopping. She had bought some piano music, 
and I had made her a present of a new scent from the Scent 
Bazaar. (At the very moment when I awoke and saw her stand- 
ing, or rather crouching by the window, I caught the sudden 
breath of scent from my own wrist which had been dabbed with 
samples from the glass-stoppered bottles.) Rain had fallen that 
night. Its delicious swishing had lulled our sleep. We had read 
by candle-light before falling asleep. 

But now she was standing by the window listening, her whole 
body stiffened into an attitude of attentive interrogation so 
acute that it suggested something like a crisis of apprehension. 
Her head was turned a little sideways, as if to present her ear to 
the uncurtained window behind which, very dimly, a rain- 
washed dawn was beginning to break over the roofs of the city. 
What was -she listening for? I had never seen this attitude before. 
I called to her and briefly she turned a distraught and unseeing 
face to me — impatiently, as if my voice had ruptured the fine 
membrane of her concentration. And as I sat up she cried, in a 

233 



deep choked voice: "O ho!", and clapping her hands over her 
ears fell shuddering to her knees. It was as if a bullet had been 
fired through her brain. I heard her bones creak as she hung 
crouching there her features contorted into a grimace. Her 
hands were locked so tightly over her ears that I could not dis- 
engage them, and when I tried to lift her by her wrists she 
simply sank back to her knees on the carpet, with shut eyes, 
like a dement. "Clea, what on earth is it?" For a long moment 
we knelt there together, I in great perplexity. Her eyes were fast 
shut. I could feel the cool wind from the window pouring into 
the room. The silence, save for our exclamations, was complete. 
At last she gave a great sigh of relaxation, a long sobbing 
respiration, and unfastened her ears, stretched her limbs slowly, 
as if unbinding them from painful cramps. She shook her head 
at me as if to say that it was nothing. And walking like a 
drunkard to the bathroom she was violently sick in the wash- 
basin. I stood there like a sleep-walker; feeling as if I had been 
uprooted. At last she came back, got into bed and turned her 
face to the wall. "What is it, Clea?" I asked again, feeling 
foolish and importunate. Her shoulders trembled slightly under 
my hand, her teeth chattered lightly from cold. "It is nothing, 
really nothing. A sudden splitting headache. But it has gone. 
Let me sleep now, will you?" 

In the morning she was up early to make the breakfast. I 
thought her exceptionally pale — with the sort of pallor that 
might come after a long and agonising toothache. She com- 
plained of feeling listless and weary. 

"You frightened me last night" I said, but she did not 
answer, turning away evasively from the Subject with a curious 
look of anxiety and distress. She asked to be allowed to spend 
the day alone painting, so I took myself off for a long walk 
across the town, teased by half-formulated thoughts and 
premonitions which I somehow could not make explicit to my- 
self. It was a beautiful day. High seas were running. The waves 
flailed the Spouting Rocks like the pistons of some huge 

234 



machine. Immense clouds of spray were flung high into the air 
like the explosion of giant puff-balls only to fall back in hissing 
spume upon the crown of the next wave. I stood watching the 
spectacle for a long time, feeling the tug of the wind at the 
skirt of my overcoat and the cool spray on my cheeks. I think I 
must have known that from this point onward everything 
would be subtly changed. That we had entered, so to speak, a 
new constellation of feelings which would alter our relationship. 

One speaks of change, but in truth there was nothing abrupt, 
coherent, definitive about it. No, the metamorphosis came 
about with comparative slowness. It waxed and waned like a 
tide, now advancing now retreating. There were even times 
when, for whole weeks, we were apparently completely restored 
to our former selves, reviving the old raptures with an intensity 
born now of insecurity. Suddenly for a spell we would be once 
more completely identified in each other, inseparable: the 
shadow had lifted. I tell myself now — and with what truth I 
still do not know — that these were periods when for a long time 
she had not heard the weeping which she once long ago 
described as belonging to a she-camel in distress or some 
horrible mechanical toy. But what could such nonsense really 
mean to anyone — and how could it elucidate those other periods 
when she fell into silence and moroseness, became a nervous 
and woebegone version of her old self? I do not know. I only 
know that this new personage was subject to long distracted 
silences now, and to unusual fatigues. She might, for example, 
fall asleep on a sofa in the middle of a party and begin to snore: 
as if overcome with weariness after an immensely long vigil. 
Insomnia too began to play its part, and she resorted to rela- 
tively massive doses of barbiturates in order to seek release from 
it. She was smoking very heavily indeed. 

"Who is this new nervy person I do not recognise?" asked 
Balthazar in perplexity one evening when she had snapped his 
head off after some trivial pleasantry and left the room, banging 
the door in my face. 

235 



"There's something wrong* ' I said. He looked at me keenly 
for a moment over a lighted match. "She isn't pregnant?" he 
asked, and I shook my head. "I think she's beginning to wear 
me out really." It cost me an effort to bring out the words. But 
they had the merit of offering something like a plausible ex- 
planation to these moods — unless one preferred to believe that 
she were being gnawed by secret fears. 

"Patience" he said. "There is never enough of it." 

"I'm seriously thinking of absenting myself for a while." 

"That might be a good idea. But not for too long." 

"I shall see." 

Sometimes in my clumsy way I would try by some teasing 
remark to probe to the sources of this disruptive anxiety. 
"Clea, why are you always looking over your shoulder — for 
what?" But this was a fatal error of tactics. Her response was 
always one of ill-temper or pique, as if in every reference to her 
distemper, however oblique, I was in some way mocking her. It 
was intimidating to see how rapidly her face darkened, her lips 
compressed themselves. It was as if I had tried to put my hand 
on a secret treasure which she was guarding with her life. 

At times she was particularly nervous. Once as we were 
coming out of a cinema I felt her stiffen on my arm. I turned 
my eyes in the direction of her gaze. She was staring with 
horror at an old man with a badly gashed face. He was a Greek 
cobbler who had been caught in a bombardment and mutilated. 
We all knew him quite well by sight, indeed Amaril had 
repaired the damage as well as he was able. I shook her arm 
softly, reassuringly and she suddenly seemed to come awake. 
She straightened up abruptly and said "Come. Let us go." She 
gave a little shudder and hurried me away. 

At other such times when I had unguardedly made some 
allusion to her inner preoccupations — this maddening air of 
always listening for something — the storms and accusations 
which followed seriously suggested the truth of my own hypo- 
thesis — namely that she was trying to drive me away: "I am no 

236 



good for you, Darley. Since we have been together you haven't 
written a single line. You have no plans. You hardly read any 
more." So stern those splendid eyes had become, and so 
troubled! I was forced to laugh, however. In truth I now knew, 
or thought I did, that I would never become a writer. The 
whole impulse to confide in the world in this way had foun- 
dered, had guttered out. The thought of the nagging little 
world of print and paper had become unbearably tedious to 
contemplate. Yet I was not unhappy to feel that the urge had 
abandoned me. On the contrary I was full of relief — a relief 
from the bondage of these forms which seemed so inadequate 
an instrument to convey the truth of feelings. "Clea, my dear" 
I said, still smiling ineffectually, and yet desiring in a way to 
confront this accusation and placate her. "I have been actually 
meditating a book of criticism." 

"Criticism!" she echoed sharply, as if the word were an in- 
sult. And she smacked me full across the mouth — a stinging 
blow which brought tears to my eyes and cut the inside of my 
lip against my teeth. I retired to the bathroom to mop my 
mouth for I could feel the salty taste of the blood. It was inter- 
esting to see my teeth outlined in blood. I looked like an ogre 
who had just taken a mouthful of bleeding flesh from his vic- 
tims. I washed my mouth, furiously enraged. She came in and 
sat down on the bidet, full of remorse. "Please forgive me" she 
said. "I don't know what sort of impulse came over me. 
Darley, please forgive" she said. 

"One more performance like this" I said grimly "and I'll 
give you a blow between those beautiful eyes which you'll 
remember." 

"I'm sorry." She put her arms round my shoulders from 
behind and kissed my neck. The blood had stopped. "What 
the devil is wrong?" I said to her reflection in the mirror. 
"What has come over you these days? We're drifting apart, 
Clea." 

"I know." 

237 



"Why?" 

"I don't know." But her face had once more become hard and 
obstinate. She sat down on the bidet and stroked her chin 
thoughtfully, suddenly sunk in reflection once more. Then she 
lit a cigarette and walked back into her living-room. When I 
returned she was sitting silently before a painting gazing at it 
with an inattentive malevolent fixity. 

"I think we should separate for a while" I said. 

"If you wish" she rapped out mechanically. 

"Do you wish it?" 

Suddenly she started crying and said "O stop questioning 
me. If only you would stop asking me question after question. 
It's like being in court these days." 

"Very well" I said. 

This was only one of several such scenes. It seemed clear to 
me that to absent myself from the city was the only way to free 
her — to give her the time and space necessary to . . . what? I did 
not know. Later that winter I thought that she had begun run- 
ning a small temperature in the evenings and incurred another 
furious scene by asking Balthazar to examine her. Yet despite 
her anger she submitted to the stethoscope with comparative 
quietness. Balthazar could find nothing physically wrong, ex- 
cept that her pulse rate was advanced and her blood pressure 
higher than normal. His prescription of stimulants she ignored, 
however. She had become much thinner at this time. 

By patient lobbying I at last unearthed a small post for which 
I was not unsuitable and which somehow fitted into the general 
rhythm of things — for I did not envisage my separation from 
Clea as something final, something in the nature of a break. It 
was simply a planned withdrawal for a few months to make 
room for any longer-sighted resolutions which she might make. 
New factors were there, too, for with the ending of the war 
Europe was slowly coming accessible once more — a new horizon 
opening beyond the battle-lines. One had almost stopped 
dreaming of it, the recondite shape of a Europe hammered flat 

238 



by bombers, raked by famine and discontents. Nevertheless it 
was still there. So it was that when I came to tell her of my 
departure it was not with despondency or sorrow — but as a 
matter-of-fact decision which she must welcome for her own 
part. Only the manner in which she pronounced the word 
"Away" with an indrawn breath suggested for a brief second 
that perhaps, after all, she might be afraid to be left alone. 
"You are going away, after all?" 

"For a few months. They are building a relay station on the 
island, and there is need for someone who knows the place and 
can speak the language." 

"Back to the island?" she said softly — and here I could not 
read the meaning of her voice or the design of her thought. 

"For a few short months only." 

"Very well." 

She walked up and down the carpet with an air of perplexity, 
staring downwards at it, deep in thought. Suddenly she looked 
up at me with a soft expression that I recognised with a pang — 
the mixture of remorse and tenderness at inflicting unwitting 
sorrow upon others. It was the face of the old Clea. But I knew 
that it would not last, that once more the peculiar shadow of 
her discontent would cast itself over our relationship. There 
was no point in trusting myself once more to what could only 
prove a short respite. "O Darley" she said, "when do you go, 
my dear?" taking my hands. 

"In a fortnight. Until then I propose not to see you at all. 
There is no point in our upsetting each other by these wrangles." 

"As you wish." 
1 11 write to you. 

"Yes of course." 

It was a strange listless way of parting after such a momentous 
relationship. A sort of ghostly anaesthesia had afflicted our 
emotions. There was a kind of deep ache inside me but it 
wasn't sorrow. The dead handshake we exchanged only ex- 
pressed a strange and truthful exhaustion of the spirit. She sat 

239 



in a chair, quietly smoking and watching me as I gathered my 
possessions together and stuffed them into the old battered 
briefcase which I had borrowed from Telford and forgotten to 
return the summer before. The toothbrush was splayed. I 
threw it away. My pyjamas were torn at the shoulder but the 
bottom half, which I had never used, were still crisp and new. 
I assembled these objects with the air of a geologist sorting 
specimens of some remote age. A few books and papers. It all 
had a sort of unreality, but I cannot say that a single sharp 
regret was mixed with it. 

"How this war has aged and staled us" she said suddenly, as 
if to herself. "In the old days one would have thought of going 
away in order, as we said, to get away from oneself. But to get 
away from it, . . ." 

Now, writing the words down in all their tedious banality, I 
realise that she was really trying to say goodbye. The fatality of 
human wishes. For me the future lay open, uncommitted; and 
there was no part of it which I could then visualise as not con- 
taining, somehow, Clea. This parting was . . . well, it was only 
like changing the bandages until a wound should heal. Being 
unimaginative, I could not think definitively about a future 
which might make unexpected demands upon me; as some- 
thing entirely new. It must be left to form itself upon the 
emptiness of the present. But for Clea the future had already 
closed, was already presenting a blank wall. The poor creature 
was afraid! 

"Well, that's everything" I said at last, shoving the brief- 
case under my arm. "If there's anything you need, you have 
only to ring me. I'll be at the flat." 

"I know." 

"I'm off then for a while. Goodbye." 

As I closed the door of the little flat I heard her call my name 
once — but this again was one of those deceptions, those little 
accesses of pity or tenderness which deceive one. It would have 
been absurd to pay any attention to it, to return on my tracks, 

240 



and open a new cycle of disagreements. I went on down the 
stairs, determined to let the future have every chance to heal 
itself. 

It was a brilliantly sunny spring day and the streets looked 
washed with colour. The feeling of having nowhere to go and 
nothing to do was both depressing and inspiriting. I returned 
to the flat and found on the mantelpiece a letter from Pombal 
in which he said that he was likely to be transferred to Italy 
shortly and did not think he would be able to keep the flat on. 
I was delighted as this enabled me to terminate the lease, my 
share of which I would soon not be able to afford myself. 

It was at first somewhat strange, even perhaps a little numb- 
ing, to be left entirely to my own devices, but I rapidly became 
accustomed to it. Moreover there was quite a lot of work to be 
done in winding up my censorship duties and handing over the 
post to a successor while at the same time collecting practical 
information for the little unit of technicians which was to 
install the radio post. Between the two departments with their 
different needs I was kept busy enough. During these days I 
kept my word and saw nothing of Clea. The time passed in a 
sort of limbo pitched between the world of desire and of fare- 
well — though there were no emotions in very clear definition 
for me: I was not conscious of regrets or longings. 

So it was that when at last that fatal day presented itself, it 
did so under the smiling guise of a spring sunshine hot enough 
to encourage the flies to begin hatching out upon the window- 
panes. It was their buzzing which awoke me. Sunlight was 
pouring into the room. For a moment, dazzled by it, I hardly 
recognised the smiling figure seated at the foot of my bed, 
waiting for me to open my eyes. It was the Clea of some for- 
gotten original version, so to speak, clad in a brilliant summer 
frock of a crisp vine-leaf pattern, white sandals, and with her 
hair arranged in a new style. She was smoking a cigarette whose 
smoke hung in brilliant ash-veined whorls in the sunlight 
above us, and her smiling face was completely relaxed and un- 

241 



shadowed by the least preoccupation. I stared, for she seemed 
so precisely and unequivocally the Clea I should always have 
remembered; the mischievous tenderness was back' in the eyes. 
"Weir' I said in sleepy amazement. "What . . . ?" and I felt 
her warm breath on my cheek as she leaned down to embrace 
me. 

"Darley" she said, "I suddenly realised that it's tomorrow 
you are leaving; and that today is the Mulid of El Scob. I 
couldn't resist the idea of spending the day together and visit- 
ing the shrine this evening. O say you will! Look at the sun- 
shine. It's warm enough for a bathe, and we could take 
Balthazar." 

I was still not properly awake. I had completely forgotten the 
Name Day of the Pirate. "But it's long past St. George's Day" 
I said. "Surely that's at the end of April." 

"On the contrary. Their absurd method of lunar calendar 
reckoning has turned him into a movable feast like all the 
others. He slides up and down the calendar now like a domestic 
saint. In fact it was Balthazar who telephoned yesterday and 
told me or I would have missed it myself." She paused to puff 
her cigarette. "We shouldn't miss it, should we?" she added a 
little wistfully. 

"But of course not! How good of you to come." 

"And the island? Perhaps you could come with us?" 

The time was just ten o'clock. I could easily telephone to 
Telford to make some excuse for absenting myself for the day. 
My heart leaped. 

"I'd love to" I said. "How does the wind sit?" 

"Calm as a nun with easterly freshets. Ideal for the cutter I 
should say. Are you sure you want to come?" 

She had a wicker-covered demijohn and a basket with her. 
"I'll go on and provision us up; you dress and meet me at the 
Yacht Club in an hour." 

"Yes." It would give me ample time to visit my office and 
examine the duty mail. "A splendid idea." 

242 



And in truth it was, for the day was clear and ringing with a 
promise of summer heat for the afternoon. Clip-clopping down 
the Grande Corniche I studied the light haze on the horizon and 
the flat blue expanse of sea with delight. The city glittered in 
sunshine like a jewel. Brilliantly rode the little craft in the 
inner basin, parodied by their shining reflections. The minarets 
shone loudly. In the Arab quarter the heat had hatched out the 
familiar smells of offal and drying mud, of carnations and jas- 
mine, of animal sweat and clover. In Tatwig Street dark gnomes 
on ladders with scarlet flower-pot hats were stretching strings 
of flags from the balconies. I felt the sun warm on my fingers. 
We rolled past the site of the ancient Pharos whose shattered 
fragments still choke the shallows. Toby Mannering, I remem- 
bered, had once wanted to start a curio trade by selling frag- 
ments of the Pharos as paperweights. Scobie was to break them 
up with a hammer for him and he was to deliver them to 
retailers all over the world. Why had the scheme foundered? I 
could not remember. Perhaps Scobie found the work too 
arduous? Or perhaps it had got telescoped with that other 
scheme for selling Jordan water to Copts at a competitive 
price? Somewhere a military band was banging away. 

They were down on the slip waiting for me. Balthazar waved 
his stick cheerfully. He was dressed in white trousers and 
sandals and a coloured shirt, and sported an ancient yellowing 
Panama hat. 

"The first day of summer" I called cheerfully. 

"You're wrong* ' he croaked. "Look at that haze. It's 
altogether too hot. I've betted Clea a thousand piastres we have 
a thunderstorm by this afternoon.' ' 

"He's always got something gloomy to say" smiled Clea. 

"I know my Alexandria" said Balthazar. 

And so amidst these idle pleasantries we three set forth, Clea 
at the tiller of her little craft. There was hardly a breath of wind 
inside the harbour and she lagged somewhat, only gathering 
way by the momentum of the currents which curved down 

243 



towards the harbour entrance. We stole past the battleships and 
liners, breasting the choppy main-channel hesitantly, the main- 
sail hardly drawing as yet, until at last we reached the huddle of 
grey forts which marked the main harbour entrance. Here there 
was always a bundle of choppy water piled up by the tide and 
we wallowed and yawed for a while until suddenly she heeled 
and threaded herself upon the wind and settled her bowsprit 
true. We began to hiss through the sea like a flying fish, as if 
she were going to impale a star. I lay in the sheets now, staring 
up at the gold sun shining through the sails, hearing the smat- 
tering of the wavelets on the elegant prow of the cutter. Bal- 
thazar was humming an air. Clea's brown wrist lay upon the 
tiller with a deceptive soft negligence. The sails were stiff. 
These are the heart-lifting joys of small sailing-craft in ideal 
weather. A speechless delight held me, a mixture of luxuries 
born of the warm sun, the racing wind, and the light cool 
touches of spray which dashed our cheeks from time to time. 
We went far out on an easterly course in order to come about 
and tack inshore. By now we had performed this manoeuvre so 
often that it had become second nature to Clear to ride down 
upon the little island of Narouz and to judge the exact 
moment at which to turn into the eye of the wind and hang, 
fluttering like an eyelash, until I had run the sail in and 
scrambled ashore to make fast. . . . 

"Smart work indeed' ' said Balthazar approvingly as he 
stepped into the water; and then "By God! it is quite fantastic- 
ally warm." 

"What did I tell you?" said Clea busy in the locker. 

"It only proves my point about a thunderstorm." 

And curiously enough, at this moment, there came a dis- 
tinct rumble of thunder out of that cloudless sky. "There" said 
Balthazar in triumph. "We will get a fine soaking and you 
will owe me some money, Clea." 

"We'll see." 

"It was a shore battery" I said. 

244 



"Rubbish" said Balthazar. 

So we secured the cutter and carried our provisions ashore. 
Balthazar lay on his back with his hat over his nose in the best 
of humours. He would not bathe, pleading the indifference of 
his swimming, so Clea and I dived once more into the familiar 
pool which we had neglected all winter long. Nothing had 
changed. The sentinels were still there, grouped in silent de- 
bate, though the winter tides had altered their dispositions 
somewhat, grouping them a little nearer to the wreck. Ironic- 
ally yet respectfully we greeted them, recognising in these 
ancient gestures and underwater smiles a familiar happiness 
growing up in the sheer act of swimming once more together. 
It was as if the blood had started to flow again in veins long 
withered from disuse. I caught her by the heel and rolled her 
in a long somersault towards the dead mariners, and turning 
expertly she repaid the debt by coming up behind me to drag 
me down by the shoulders and climb surfacewards before I 
could retaliate. It was here, spiralling up through the water 
with her hair coiled out behind her, that the image of Clea was 
restored once more. Time had rendered her up, whole and 
intact again — 'natural as a city's grey-eyed Muse* — to quote the 
Greek poem. Swiftly, precisely the fingers which pressed upon 
my shoulder re-evoked her as we slid through the silent pool. 

And then: to sit once more in the simple sunlight, sipping 
the red wine of St. Menas as she broke up the warm brown loaf 
of French bread, and hunted for a particular cheese or a cluster 
of dates: while Balthazar talked discursively (half asleep) of the 
Vineyard of Ammon, the Kings of the Harpoon Kingdom and 
their battles, or of the Mareotic wine to which, not history, but 
the gossiping Horace once attributed Cleopatra's distempers of 
mind . . . (' 'History sanctions everything, pardons everything 
— even what we do not pardon ourselves.") 

So the warm noon drew on as we lay there on the hot pebbles: 
and so at last — to Balthazar's great delight and Clea's discom- 
fiture — the predicted thunderstorm made its appearance, 

245 



heralded by a great livid cloud which rolled up from the east 
and squatted over the city, bruising the sky. So suddenly too — 
as when an ink-squid in alarm puffs out its bag and suddenly 
fogs clear water in a cloud of black — rain flowed down in 
glittering sheets, thunder bellowed and insisted. At each peal 
Balthazar clapped his hands with delight — not only to be 
proved right, but also because here we were sitting in full sun- 
light, fully at our ease, eating oranges and drinking wine beside 
an untroubled blue sea. 

"Stop crowing' ' said Clea severely. 

It was one of those freak storms so prevalent in the early 
spring with its sharp changes of temperature born of sea and 
desert. They turned the streets to torrents in the twinkling of 
an eye, yet never endured above half an hour. Suddenly the 
cloud would be whisked away by a scrap of wind, utterly to 
disappear. "And mark me now" said Balthazar, inebriated by 
the success of his prediction. "By the time we get back to 
harbour everything will be dry again, dry as a bone." 

But now the afternoon brought us another phenomenon to 
delight us — something rarely seen in summer in the waters of 
Alexandria, belonging as it did to those days preceding winter 
storms when the glass was falling steeply. The waters of the 
pool darkened appreciably, curdled, and then became phos- 
phorescent. It was Clea who first noticed. "Look" she cried 
with delight crushing her heels down in the shallows to watch 
the twinkling prickling light spark from them. "Phosphorus!" 
Balthazar started saying something learned about the organism 
which causes this spectacle but unheeding we plunged side by 
side and ranged down into the water, transformed into figures 
of flame, the sparks flashing from the tips of our fingers and 
toes with the glitter of static electricity. A swimmer seen under- 
water looks like an early picture of the fall of Lucifer, literally 
on fire. So bright was the electrical crackle that we could not 
help wondering how it was that we were not scorched by it. So 
we played, glittering like comets, among the quiet mariners 

246 



who sat, watching us perhaps in their thoughts, faintly echoing 
the twitching of the tide in their canvas sacks. 

"The cloud's lifting already* ' cried Balthazar as I surfaced at 
last for air. Soon even the fugitive phosphorescence would 
dwindle and vanish. For some reason or other he had climbed 
into the stern of the cutter, perhaps to gain height and more 
easily watch the thunderstorm over the city. I rested my fore- 
arms on the gunwale and took my breath. He had unwrapped 
the old harpoon gun of Narouz and was holding it negligently 
on his knee. Clea surfaced with a swish of delight and pausing 
just long enough to cry: "The lire is so beautiful' ' doubled her 
lithe body back and ducked downward again. 

"What are you doing with that?" I asked idly. 

"Seeing how it works." 

He had in fact pushed the harpoon to rest in the barrel. It 

had locked with the spring. "It's cocked" I said. " Have a 

ft 
care. 

"Yes, I'm going to release it." 

Then Balthazar leaned forward and uttered the only serious 
remark he had made all that day. "You know" he said, "I 
think you had better take her with you. I have a feeling you 
won't be coming back to Alexandria. Take Clea with you!" 

And then, before I could reply, the accident happened. He 
was fumbling with the gun as he spoke. It slipped from be- 
tween his fingers and fell with a crash, the barrel striking the 
gunwale six inches from my face. As I reared back in alarm I 
heard the sudden cobra-like hiss of the compressor and the 
leaden twang of the trigger-release. The harpoon whistled into 
the water beside me rustling its long green line behind it. "For 
Christ's sake" I said. Balthazar had turned white with alarm 
and vexation. His half-muttered apologies and expressions of 
horrid amazement were eloquent. "I'm terribly sorry." I had 
heard the slight snick of steel settling into a target, somewhere 
down there in the pool. We stayed frozen for a second for 
something else had occurred simultaneously to our minds. As I 

247 



saw his lips starting to shape the word "Clea" I felt a sudden 
darkness descending on my spirit — a darkness which lifted and 
trembled at the edges; and a rushing like the sough of giant 
wings. I had already turned before he uttered the word. I 
crashed back into the water, now following the long green 
thread with all the suspense of Ariadne; and to it added the 
weight of slowness which only heartsick apprehension brings. 
I knew in my mind that I was swimming vigorously — yet it 
seemed like one of those slow-motion films where human 
actions, delayed by the camera, are drawn unctuously out to 
infinity, spooled out like toffee. How many light-years would 
it take to reach the end of that thread? What would I find at 
the end of it? Down I went, and down, in the dwindling phos- 
phorescence, into the deep shadowed coolness of the pool. 

At the far end, by the wreck, I distinguished a convulsive, 
coiling movement, and dimly recognised the form of Clea. She 
seemed intently busy upon some childish underwater game of 
the kind we so often played together. She was tugging at some- 
thing, her feet braced against the woodwork of the wreck, tug- 
ging and relaxing her body. Though the green thread led to her 
I felt a wave of relief — for perhaps she was only trying to extri- 
cate the harpoon and carry it to the surface with her. But no, 
for she rolled drunkenly. I slid along her like an eel, feeling 
with my hands. Feeling me near she turned her head as if to 
tell me something. Her long hair impeded my vision. As for 
her face I could not read the despairing pain which must have 
been written on it — for the water transforms every expression 
of the human features into the goggling imbecile grimace of 
the squid. But now she arched out and flung her head back so 
that her hair could flow freely up from her scalp — the gesture of 
someone throwing open a robe to exhibit a wound. And I saw. 
Her right hand had been pierced and nailed to the wreck by 
the steel arrow. At least it had not passed through her body, 
my mind cried out in relief, seeking to console itself; but the 
relief turned to sick malevolent despair when, clutching the 

248 



steel shaft, I myself braced my feet against the wood, tugging 
until my thigh muscles cracked. It would not be budged by a 
hair's breadth. (No, but all this was part of some incompre- 
hensible dream, fabricated perhaps in the dead minds of the 
seven brooding figures which attended so carefully, so scrupu- 
lously to the laboured evolutions we now performed — we no 
longer free and expeditious as fish, but awkward, splayed, like 
lobsters trapped in a pot.) I struggled frantically with that steel 
arrow, seeing out of the corner of my eye the long chain of white 
bubbles bursting from the throat of Clea. I felt her muscles 
expending themselves, ebbing. Gradually she was settling in 
the drowsiness of the blue water, being invaded by the water- 
sleep which had already lulled the mariners to sleep. I shook her. 

I cannot pretend that anything which followed belonged to 
my own volition — for the mad rage which now possessed me 
was not among the order of the emotions I would ever have 
recognised as belonging to my proper self. It exceeded, in blind 
violent rapacity, anything I had ever before experienced. In this 
curious timeless underwater dream I felt my brain ringing like 
the alarm bell of an ambulance, dispelling the lulling languorous 
ebb and flow of the marine darkness. I was suddenly ro welled 
by the sharp spur of terror. It was as if I were for the first time 
confronting myself — or perhaps an alter ego shaped after a man 
of action I had never realised, recognised. With one wild shove 
I shot to the surface again, emerging under Balthazar's very 
nose. 

"The knife" I said sucking in the air. 

His eyes gazed into mine, as if over the edge of some 
sunken continent, with an expression of pity and horror; emo- 
tions preserved, fossilised, from some ict age of human 
memory. And native fear. He started to stammer out all the 
questions which invaded his mind — words like "what" 
"where" "when" "whither" — but could achieve no more than 
a baffled "wh ": a vague sputtering anguish of interroga- 
tion. 

249 



The knife which I had remembered was an Italian bayonet 
which had been ground down to the size of a dirk and sharpened 
to razor keenness. Ali the boatman had manufactured it with 
pride. He used it to trim ropes, for splicing and rigging. I hung 
there for a second while he reached out for it, eyes closed, 
lungs drinking in the whole sky it seemed. Then I felt the 
wooden haft in my fingers and without daring to look again at 
Balthazar I turned my toes to heaven and returned on my 
tracks, following the green thread. 

She hung there limp now, stretched languorously out, while 
her long hair unfurled behind her; the tides rippled out along 
her body, passing through it, it seemed like an electric current 
playing. Everything was still, the silver coinage of sunlight 
dappling the floor of the pool, the silent observers, the statues 
whose long beards moved slowly, unctuously to and fro. Even 
as I began to hack at her hand I was mentally preparing a large 
empty space in my mind which would have to accommodate 
the thought of her dead. A large space like an unexplored sub- 
continent on the maps of the mind. It was not very long before 
I felt the body disengage under this bitter punishment. The 
water was dark. I dropped the knife and with a great push sent 
her reeling back from the wreck: caught her under the arms: 
and so rose. It seemed to take an age — and endless progression 
of heartbeats — in that slow-motion world. Yet we hit the sky 
with a concussion that knocked the breath from me — as if I 
had cracked my skull on the ceiling of the universe. I was 
standing in the shallows now rolling the heavy sodden log of 
her body. I heard the crash of Balthazar's teeth falling into the 
boat as he jumped into the water beside me. We heaved and 
grunted like stevedores until she was out on the pebbles, Bal- 
thazar meanwhile scrabbling about to grasp that injured hand 
which was spouting. He was like an electrician trying to cap- 
ture and insulate a high-tension wire which had snapped. 
Grabbing it, he held on to it like a vice. I had a sudden picture 
of him as a small child holding his mother's hand nervously 

250 



among a crowd of other children, or crossing a park where the 
boys had once thrown stones at him. . . . Through his pink 
gums he extruded the word ' 'Twine* ' — and there was some 
luckily in the cutter's locker which kept him busy. 

"But she's dead" I said, and the word altered my heartbeats, 
so that I felt about to faint. She was lying, like a fallen seabird, 
on the little spit of pebbles. Balthazar squatted almost in the 
water, holding frenziedly on to the hand at which I could 
hardly bear to look. But again this unknown alter ego whose 
voice came from far away helped me to adjust a tourniquet, 
roll a pencil in it and hand it to him. With a heave now I 
straightened her out and fell with a thump upon her, crashing 
down as if from a very great height upon her back. I felt the 
soggy heavy lungs bounce under this crude blow. Again and 
again, slowly but with great violence I began to squeeze them 
in this pitiful simulacrum of the sexual act — life saving, life- 
giving. Balthazar appeared to be praying. Then came a small 
sign of hope for the lips of that pale face opened and a little sea 
water mixed with vomit trickled from them. It meant nothing, 
of course, but we both cried out at the omen. Closing my eyes 
I willed my wrists to seek out those waterlogged lungs, to 
squeeze and void them. Up and down, up and down in this 
slow cruel rhythm, I pumped at her. I felt her fine bones creak- 
ing under my hands. But still she lay lifeless. But I would not 
accept the thought that she was dead, though I knew it with 
one part of my mind. I felt half mad with determination to 
disprove it, to overthrow, if necessary, the whole process of 
nature and by an act of will force her to live. These decisions 
astonished me, for they subsisted like clear and sharply defined 
images underneath the dazed physical fatigue, the groan and 
sweat of this labour. I had, I realised, decided either to bring 
her up alive or to stay down there at the bottom of the pool 
with her; but where, from which territory of the will such a 
decision had come, I could not guess! And now it was hot. I 
was pouring with sweat. Balthazar still sat holding the hand, 

251 



the painters hand, humbly as a child at its mother's knee. 
Tears trickled down his nose. His head went from side to side 
in that Jewish gesture of despairing remorse and his toothless 
gums formed the sound of the old Wailing Wall "Aiee, Aiee". 
But very softly, as if not to disturb her. 

But at last we were rewarded. Suddenly, like a spout giving 
in a gutter under the pressure of rain, her mouth opened and 
expelled a mass of vomit and sea-water, fragments of breadsoak 
and orange. We gazed at this mess with a lustful delight, as if 
at a great trophy. I felt the lungs respond slowly to my hand. 
A few more strokes of this crude engine and a secondary ripple 
seemed to stir in the musculature of her body. At almost every 
downward thrust now the lungs gave up some water, reluc- 
tantly, painfully. Then, after a long time, we heard a faint 
whimper. It must have hurt, as the first few breaths hurt a 
newly born child. The body of Clea was protesting at this 
forcible rebirth. And all of a sudden the features of that white 
face moved, composed themselves to express something like 
pain and protest. (Yes, but it hurts to realise.) 

"Keep it up" cried Balthazar in a new voice, shaky and 
triumphant. There was no need to tell me. She was twitching a 
little now, and making a soundless whimpering face at each 
lunge. It was like starting a very cold diesel engine. Finally yet 
another miracle occurred — for she opened very blue sightless 
unfocused eyes for a second to study, with dazed concentration, 
the stones before her nose. Then she closed them again. Pain 
darkened her features, but even the pain was a triumph — for at 
least they expressed living emotions now — emotions which had 
replaced the pale set mask of death. "She's breathing" I said. 
"Balthazar she's breathing." 

"She's breathing" he repeated with a kind of idiotic rapture. 

She was breathing, short staggering inspirations which were 
clearly painful. But now another kind of help was at hand. We 
had not noticed, so concentrated were we on this task, that a 
vessel had entered the little harbour. This was the Harbour 

252 



Patrol motorboat. They had seen us and guessed that something 
was wrong. " Merciful God" cried Balthazar flapping his arms 
like an old crow. Cheerful English voices came across the water 
asking if we needed help; a couple of sailors came ashore to- 
wards us. "We'll have her back in no time" said Balthazar, 
grinning shakily. 

''Give her some brandy." 

"No" he cried sharply. "No brandy." 

The sailors brought a tarpaulin ashore and softly we baled 
her up like Cleopatra. To their brawny arms she must have 
seemed as light as thistledown. Their tender clumsy move- 
ments were touching, brought tears to my eyes. "Easy up there, 
Nobby. Gently with the little lady." "That tourniquet will 
have to be watched. You go too, Balthazar." 

"And you?" 

"I'll bring her cutter back." 

We wasted no more time. In a few moments the powerful 
motors of the patrol vessel began to bustle them away at a good 
ten knots. I heard a sailor say: "How about some hot Bovril?" 

"Capital" said Balthazar. He was soaked to the skin. His hat 
was floating in the water beside me. Leaning over the stern a 
thought suddenly struck him. 

"My teeth. Bring my teeth!" 

I watched them out of sight and then sat for a good while 
with my head in my hands. I found to my surprise that I was 
trembling all over like a frightened horse with shock. A split- 
ting headache assailed me. I climbed into the cutter and foraged 
for the brandy and a cigarette. The harpoon gun lay on the 
sheets. I threw it overboard with an oath and watched it slowly 
crawling downwards into the pool. Then I shook out the jib, 
and turning her through her own length on the stern anchor 
pressed her out into the wind. It took longer than I thought, 
for the evening wind had shifted a few points and I had to tack 
widely before I could bring her in. Ali was waiting for me. He 
had already been apprised of the situation, and carried a message 

253 



from Balthazar to the effect that Clea had been taken up to the 
Jewish hospital. 

I took a taxi as soon as one could be found. We travelled 
across the city at a great pace. The streets and buildings passed 
me in a sort of blur. So great was my anxiety that I saw them 
as if through a rain-starred window-pane. I could hear the 
metre ticking away like a pulse. Somewhere in a white ward 
Clea would be lying drinking blood through the eye of a silver 
needle. Drop by drop it would be passing into the median vein 
heart-beat by heart-beat. There was nothing to worry about, I 
told myself; and then, thinking of that shattered hand, I 
banged my fist with rage against the padded wall of the taxi. 

I followed a duty nurse down the long anonymous green 
corridors whose oil-painted walls exuded an atmosphere of 
damp. The white phosphorescent bulbs which punctuated our 
progress wallowed in the gloom like swollen glow-worms. They 
had probably put her, I reflected, in the little ward with the 
single curtained bed which in the past had been reserved for 
critical cases whose expectation of life was short. It was now the 
emergency casualty ward. A sense of ghostly familiarity was 
growing upon me. In the past it was here that I had come to 
see Melissa. Clea must be lying in the same narrow iron bed in 
the corner by the wall. ("It would be just like real life to 
imitate art at this point. ,, ) 

In the corridor outside, however, I came upon Amaril and 
Balthazar standing with a curious chastened expression before 
a trolley which had just been wheeled to them by a duty nurse. 
It contained a number of wet and glistening X-ray photographs, 
newly developed and pegged upon a rail. The two men were 
studying them anxiously, gravely, as if thinking out a chess 
problem. Balthazar caught sight of me and turned, his face 
lighting up. "She's all right' ' he said, but in rather a broken 
voice, as he squeezed my hand. I handed him his teeth and he 
blushed, and slipped them into his pocket. Amaril was wearing 
horn-rimmed reading glasses. He turned from his intent study 

254 



of those dripping dangling sheets with an expression of utter 
rage. "What the bloody hell do you expect me to do with this 
mess?" he burst out waving his insolent white hand in the 
direction of the X-rays. I lost my temper at the implied 
accusation and in a second we were shouting at each other like 
fishmongers, our eyes full of tears. I think we would have come 
to blows out of sheer exasperation had not Balthazar got be- 
tween us. Then at once the rage dropped from Amaril and he 
walked round Balthazar to embrace me and mutter an apology. 
"She's all right* ' he murmured, patting me consolingly on the 
shoulder. "We've tucked her up safely." 

"Leave the rest to us" said Balthazar. 

"I'd like to see her" I said enviously — as if, in bringing her 
to life, she had become in a way my own property too. "Could 
I?" 

As I pushed open the door and crept into the little cell like a 
miser I heard Amaril say peevishly: "It's all very well to talk 
about surgical repair in that glib way " 

It was immensely quiet and white, the little ward with its 
tall windows. She lay with her face to the wall in the uncom- 
fortable steel bed on castors of yellow rubber. It smelt of 
flowers, though there were none to be seen and I could not 
identify the odour. It was perhaps a synthetic atomiser spray — 
the essence of forget-me-nots? I softly drew up a chair beside 
the bed and sat down. Her eyes were open, gazing at the wall 
with the dazed look which suggested morphia and fatigue 
combined. Though she gave no sign of having heard me enter 
she said suddenly: 

"Is that you Darley?" 

"Yes." 

Her voice was clear. Now she sighed and moved slightly, as 
if with relief at my coming. "I'm so glad." Her voice had a 
small weary lilt which suggested that somewhere beyond the 
confines of her present pain and drowsiness a new self-confi- 
dence was stirring. "I wanted to thank you." 

255 



"It is Amaril you're in love with" I said — rather, blurted 
out. The remark came as a great surprise to me. It was com- 
pletely involuntary. Suddenly a shutter seemed to roll back 
across my mind. I realised that this new fact which I was 
enunciating was one that I had always known, but without 
being aware of the knowing 1 . Foolish as it was the distinction was a 
real one. Amaril was like a playing card which had always been 
there, lying before me on the table, face downwards. I had been 
aware of its existence but had never turned it over. Nor, I 
should add, was there anything in my voice beyond genuine 
scientific surprise; it was without pain, and full of sympathy 
only. Between us we had never used this dreadful word — this 
synonym for derangement or illness — and if I deliberately used 
it now it was to signify my recognition of the thing's autono- 
mous nature. It was rather like saying "My poor child, you 
have got cancer!" 

After a moment's silence she said: "Past tense now, alas!" 
Her voice had a puzzled drawling quality. "And I was giving 
you good marks for tact, thinking you had recognised him in 
my Syrian episode! Had you really not? Yes, Amaril turned me 
into a woman I suppose. O isn't it disgusting? When will we 
all grow up? No, but I've worn him out in my heart, you know. 
It isn't as you imagine it. I know he is not the man for me. 
Nothing would have persuaded me to replace Semira. I know 
this by the fact of having made love to him, been in love with 
him! It's odd, but the experience prevented me from mistaking 
him for the other one, the once for aller! Though who and 
where he is remains to discover. I haven't really affronted the 
real problems yet, I feel. They lie the other side of these mere 
episodes. And yet, perverse as it is, it is nice to be close to him 
— even on the operating-table. How is one to make clear a 
single truth about the human heart?" 

"Shall I put off my journey?" 

"But no. I wouldn't wish it at all. I shall need a little time 
to come to myself now that at last I am free from the horror. 

256 



That at least you have done for me — pushed me back into mid- 
stream again and driven off the dragon. It's gone and will never 
come back. Put your hand on my shoulder and squeeze, instead 
of a kiss. No. Don't change plans. Now at last we can take 
things a bit easily. Unhurriedly. I shall be well cared for here as 
you know. Later when your job is done we shall see, shall we? 
Try and write. I feel perhaps a pause might start you off." 

"I will." But I knew I wouldn't. 

"Only one thing I want you to do. Please visit the Mulid of 
El Scob tonight so that you can tell me all about it; you see it 
is the first time since the war that they are allowing the custom- 
ary lighting in that quartier. It should be fun to see. I don't 
want you to miss it. Will you?" 
Or course. 

"Thank you, my dear." 

I stood up and after a moment's pause said: "Clea what 
exactly was the horror?" 

But she had closed her eyes and was fading softly into sleep. 
Her lips moved but I could not catch her answer. There was the 
faintest trace of a smile at the corners of her mouth. 

A phrase of Pursewarden's came into my mind as I softly 
closed the door of the ward. "The richest love is that which 
submits to the arbitration of time." 



It was already late when at last I managed to locate a gharry 
to take me back to the town. At the flat I found a message to 
say that my departure had been put forward by six hours; the 
motor-launch would be leaving at midnight. Hamid was there, 
standing quite still and patient, as if he already knew the con- 
tents of the message. My luggage had been collected by an 
Army truck that afternoon. There was nothing left to do 
except kill the time until twelve, and this I proposed to do in 
the fashion suggested by Clea: by visiting the Mulid of El 
Scob. Hamid still stood before me, gravid with the weight of 

2*57 



another parting. "You no come back this time, sir" he said 
blinking his eye at me with sorrow. I looked at the little man 
with emotion. I remembered how proudly he had recounted the 
saving of this one eye. It was because he had been the younger 
and uglier brother of the two. His mother had put out his 
brother's two eyes in order to prevent him from being con- 
scripted; but he Hamid, being puny and ugly — he had escaped 
with one. His brother was now a blind muej^in in Tanta. But 
how rich he was, Hamid, with his one eye! It represented a 
fortune to him in well-paid work for rich foreigners. 

"I come to you in London" he said eagerly, hopefully. 

"Very well. I'll write to you." 

He was all dressed up for the Mulid in his best clothes — the 
crimson cloak and the red shoes of soft morocco leather; in his 
bosom he had a clean white handkerchief. It was his evening 
off I remembered. Pombal and I had saved up a sum of money 
to give him as a parting present. He took the cheque between 
finger and thumb, inclining his head with gratitude. But self- 
interest could not buoy him up against the pain of parting 
from us. So he repeated "I come to you in London" to console 
himself; shaking hands with himself as he said the words. 

"Very well" I said for the third time, though I could hardly 
see one-eyed Hamid in London. "I will write. Tonight I shall 
visit the Mulid of El Scob." 

"Very good." I shook him by the shoulders and the famili- 
arity made him bow his head. A tear trickled out of his blind 
eye and off the end of his nose. 

"Goodbye ya Hamid" I said, and walked down the stairs, 
leaving him standing quietly at the top, as if waiting for some 
signal from outer space. Then suddenly he rushed after me, 
catching me at the front door, in order to thrust into my hand, 
as a parting present, his cherished picture of Melissa and myself 
walking down Rue Fuad on some forgotten afternoon. 



258 



Ill 



The whole quarter lay drowsing in the umbrageous 
violet of approaching nightfall. A sky of palpitating 
velours which was cut into by the stark flare of a 
thousand electric light bulbs. It lay over Tatwig 
Street, that night, like a velvet rind. Only the lighted tips of 
the minarets rose above it on their slender invisible stalks — 
appeared hanging suspended in the sky; trembling slightly with 
the haze as if about to expand their hoods like cobras. Drifting 
idly down those remembered streets once more I drank in (for- 
ever: keepsakes of the Arab town) the smell of crushed chrysan- 
themums, ordure, scents, strawberries, human sweat and roast- 
ing pigeons. The procession had not arrived as yet. It would 
form somewhere beyond the harlots' quarter, among the tombs, 
and wind its slow way to the shrine, geared to a dancing 
measure; calling on the way at each of the mosques to offer up 
a verse or two of the Book in honour of El Scob. But the 
secular side of the festival was in full swing. In the dark alleys 
people had brought their dinner tables into the street, candlelit 
and decked with roses. So sitting they could catch the chipped 
headtones of the girl singers who were already standing on the 
wooden platforms outside the caf£s, piercing the heavy night 
with their quartertones. The streets were beflagged, and the 
great framed pictures of the circumcision doctors rippled on 
high among the cressets and standards. In a darkened yard I 
saw them pouring the hot sugar, red and white, into the little 
wooden moulds from which would emerge the whole bestiary 
of Egypt — the ducks, horsemen, rabbits, and goats. The great 
sugar figurines too of the Delta folklore — Yuna and Aziz the 
lovers interlocked, interpenetrated — and the bearded heroes 
like Abu Zeid, armed and mounted among his brigands. They 

259 



were splendidly obscene — surely the stupidest word in our 
language? — and brilliantly coloured before being dressed in 
their garments of paper, tinsel, and spangled gold, and set up 
on display among the Sugar Booths for the children to gape at 
and buy. In every little square now the coloured marquees had 
been run up, each with its familiar sign. The Gamblers were 
already busy — Abu Firan, the Father of Rats, was shouting 
cheerfully for customers. The great board stood before him on 
trestles, each of the twelve houses marked with a number and a 
name. In the centre stood the live white rat which had been 
painted with green stripes. You placed your money on the 
number of a house, and won, if the rat entered it. In another 
box the same game was in play, but with a pigeon this time; 
when all the bets were laid a handful of grain was tossed into 
the centre and the pigeon, in eating it, entered one of the 
numbered stalls. 

I bought myself a couple of sugar figurines and sat down out- 
side a cafe* to watch the passing show with its brilliant pristine 
colour. These little "arusas" or brides I would have liked to 
keep, but I knew that they would crumble or be eaten by ants. 
They were the little cousins of the santons de Provence or the bon~ 
hommes de pain d'epices of the French country fair: of our own 
now extinct gilt gingerbread men. I ordered a spoon of mastika 
to eat with the cool fizzing sherbet. From where I sat at an 
angle between two narrow streets I could see the harlots paint- 
ing themselves at an upper window before coming down to set 
up their garish booths among the conjurers and tricksters; 
Showal the dwarf was teasing them from his booth at ground 
level and causing screams of laughter at his well-aimed arrows. 
He had a high tinny little voice and the most engaging of 
acrobatic tricks despite his stunted size. He talked continuously 
even when standing on his head, and punctuated the point of 
his patter with a double somersault. His face was grotesquely 
farded and his lips painted in a clown's grin. At the other 
corner under a hide curtain sat Faraj the fortune-teller with his 

260 



instruments of divination — ink, sand, and a curious hairy ball 
like a bull's testicles only covered in dark hair. A radiantly 
beautiful prostitute squatted before him. He had filled her 
palm with ink and was urging her to scry. 

Little scenes from the street life. A mad wild witch of a 
woman who suddenly burst into the street, foaming at the lips 
and uttering curses so terrible that silence fell and everyone's 
blood froze. Her eyes blazed like a bear's under the white 
matted hair. Being mad she was in some sort holy, and no-one 
dared to face the terrible imprecations she uttered which, if 
turned on him, might spell ill luck. Suddenly a grubby child 
darted from the crowd and tugged her sleeve. At once calmed 
she took his hand and turned away into an alley. The festival 
closed over the memory of her like a skin. 

I was sitting here, drunk on the spectacle, when the voice of 
Scobie himself suddenly sounded at my elbow. "Now, old 
man" it said thoughtfully. "If you have Tendencies you got to 
have Scope. That's why I'm in the Middle East if you want to 
know. . . ♦" 

"God, you gave me a start" I said, turning round. It was 
Nimrod the policeman who had been one of the old man's 
superiors in the Police Force. He chuckled and sat down beside 
me, removing his tarbush to mop his forehead. "Did you think 
he'd come to life?" he enquired. 

"I certainly did." 

"I know my Scobie, you see." 

Nimrod laid his flywhisk before him and with a clap of his 
hands commanded a coffee. Then giving me a sly wink he went 
on in the veritable voice of the saint. "The thing about Budgie 
was just that. In Horsham there's no Scope. Otherwise I would 
have joined him years ago in the earth-closet trade. The man's a 
mechanical genius I don't mind admitting. And not having any 
income except what the old mud-slinger — as he laughingly calls 
it — brings him in, he's stymied. He's in baulk. Did I ever tell 
you about the Bijou Earth Closet? No? Funny I thought I did. 

261 



Well, it was a superb contrivance, the fruit of long experiment. 
Budgie is an F.R.Z.S. you know. He got it by home study. 
That shows you what a brain the man has. Well it was a sort 
of lever with a trigger. The seat of the closet was on a kind of 
spring. As you sat down it went down, but when you got up it 
sprang up of its own accord and threw a spadeful of earth into 
the bin. Budgie says he got the idea from watching his dog 
clear up after himself with his paws. But how he adapted it I 
just can't fathom. It's sheer genius. You have a magazine at the 
back which you fill with earth or sand. Then when you get up 
the spring goes bang and presto! He's making about two 
thousand a year out of it, I don't mind admitting. Of course it 
takes time to build up a trade, but the overheads are low. He 
has just one man working for him to build the box part, and he 
buys the springs — gets them made to specification in Hammer- 
smith. And they're very prettily painted too, with astrology 
all round the rim. It looks queer, I admit. In fact it looks 
arcane. But it's a wonderful contrivance the little Bijou. Once 
there was a crisis while I was home on leave for a month. I 
called in to see Budgie. He was almost in tears. The chap who 
helped, Tom the carpenter, used to drink a bit and must have 
misplaced the sprockets on one series of Bijous. Anyway com- 
plaints started to pour in. Budgie said that his closets had gone 
mad all over Sussex and were throwing earth about in a weird 
and unwholesome way. Customers were furious. Well, there 
was nothing for it but to visit all his parishioners on a motor- 
bike and adjust the sprockets. I had so little time that I didn't 
want to miss his company — so he took me along with him. It 
was quite an adventure I don't mind telling you. Some of them 
were quite mad with Budgie. - One woman said the sprocket 
was so strong her closet threw mud the length of the drawing- 
room. We had a time quietening her down. I helped by lending 
a soothing influence I don't mind admitting, while Budgie 
tinkered with the spring. I told stories to take their minds off 
the unhappy business. But finally it got straightened out. And 

262 



now it's a profitable industry with members everywhere." 

Nimrod sipped his coffee reflectively and cocked a quizzical 
eye in my direction, proud of his mimicry. "And now" he said, 
throwing up his hands, "El Scob. ..." 

A crowd of painted girls passed down the street, brilliant as 
tropical parrots and almost as loud in their chattering and 
laughing. "Now that Abu Zeid" said Nimrod "has taken the 
Mulid under his patronage it's likely to grow into a bit of head- 
ache for us. It's such a crowded quarter. This morning he sent 
a whole string of he-camels on heat into the town with bercim 
clover. You know how horrible they smell. And when they're 
in season they get that horrible jelly-like excrescence on their 
necks. It must irritate them or suppurate or something for 
they're scratching their necks the whole time on walls and 
posts. Two of them had a fight. It took hours to untangle the 
affair. The place was blocked." 

Suddenly a series of bangs sounded from the direction of the 
harbour and a series of bright coloured rockets traced their 
splendid grooves across the night, drooping and falling away 
with a patter and a hiss. "Aha!" said Nimrod with self-satis- 
faction. "There goes the Navy. I'm glad they remembered." 

"Navy?" I echoed as another long line of rockets tossed their 
brilliant plumage across the soft night. 

"The boys of H.M.S. Milton" he chuckled. "I happened to 
dine on board last night. The wardroom was much taken by 
my story of an old Merchant Seaman who had been beatified. 
I naturally did not tell them very much about Scobie; least of 
all about his death. But I did hint that a few fireworks would 
be appropriate as coming from British mariners, and I also 
added that as a political gesture of respect it would earn them 
good marks with the worshippers. The idea caught on at once, 
and the Admiral was asked for permission. And there we go!" 

We sat for a while in companionable silence watching the 
fireworks and the highly delighted crowd which saluted each 
salvo with long quivering exclamations of pleasure. "All — ah! 

263 



All — ah!" Finally Nimrod cleared his throat and said: "Darley, 
can I ask you a question? Do you know what Justine is up to?" 
I must have looked very blank for he went on at once without 
hesitation. "I only ask you because she rang me yesterday and 
said that she was going to break parole today, come into town 
deliberately, and that she wanted me to arrest her. It sounds 
quite absurd — I mean to come all the way into town to give 
herself up to the Police. She said she wanted to force a personal 
interview with Memlik. It had to be me as reports from the 
British officers on the force would carry weight and draw Mem- 
lik's attention. It sounds a bit of a rigmarole doesn't it? But I've 
got a date with her at the Central Station in half an hour." 

"I know nothing about the matter." 

"I wondered if you did. Anyway keep it under your hat." 

"I will." 

He stood up and held out his hand to say goodbye. ' 'You're 
off tonight I gather. Good luck/' As he stepped down from the 
little wooden platform he said: "By the way, Balthazar is look- 
ing for you. He's somewhere down at the shrine — what a 
word!" With a brief nod his tall figure moved away into the 
brilliant swirling street. I paid for my drink and walked down 
towards Tatwig Street, bumped and jostled by the holiday 
crowd. 

Ribbons and bunting and huge coloured gonfalons had been 
hung from every balcony along the street. The little piece of 
waste land under the arched doors was now the most sumptuous 
of saloons. Huge tents with their brilliant embroidered designs 
had been set up creating a ceremonial parade ground where the 
dancing and chanting would be held when the procession 
reached its destination. This area was crowded with children. 
The drone of prayers and the shrill tongue-trills of women 
came from the shrine which was dimly lit. The suppliants were 
invoking fruitfulness of Scobie's bath-tub. The long quavering 
lines of the Suras spun themselves on the night in a web of 
melodious sound. I quested round a bit among the crowd like a 

264 



gun-dog, hunting for Balthazar. At last I caught sight of him 
sitting somewhat apart at an outdoor cafe\ I made my way to 
his side. "Good" he said. "I was on the look out for you. 
Hamid said you were off tonight. He telephoned to ask for a 
job and told me. Besides I wanted to share with you my mixture 
of shame and relief over this hideous accident. Shame at the 
stupidity, relief that she isn't dead. Both mixed. I'm rather 
drunk with relief, and dazed with the shame." He was indeed 
rather tipsy. "But it will be all right, thank God!" 

"What does Amaril think?" 

"Nothing as yet. Or if he does he won't say. She must have 
a comfortable twenty-four hours of rest before anything is 
decided. Are you really going?" His voice fell with reproof. 
"You should stay, you know." 

"She doesn't want me to stay." 

"I know. I was a bit shocked when she said she had told you 
to go; but she said 'You don't understand. I shall see if I can't 
will him back again. We aren't quite ripe for each other yet. 
It will come.' I was amazed to see her so self-confident and 
radiant again. Really amazed. Sit down, my dear chap, and 
have a couple of stiff drinks with me. We'll see the procession 
quite well from here. No crowding." He clapped his hands 
rather unsteadily and called for more mastika. 

When the glasses were brought he sat for a long while silent 
with his chin on his hands, staring at them. Then he gave a 
sigh and shook his head sadly. 

"What is it?" I said, removing his glass from the tray and 
placing it squarely before him on the tin table. 

"Leila is dead" he said quietly. The words seemed to weight 
him down with sorrow. "Nessim telephoned this evening to 
tell me. The strange thing is that he sounded exhilarated by the 
news. He has managed to get permission to fly down and make 
arrangements for her funeral. D'you know what he said?" Bal- 
thazar looked at me with that dark all-comprehending eye and 
went on. "He said: 'While I loved her and all that, her death has 

265 



freed me in a curious sort of way, A new life is opening before 
me. I feel years younger/ I don't know if it was a trick of the 
telephone or what but he sounded younger. His voice was full 
of suppressed excitement. He knew, of course, that Leila and I 
were the oldest of friends but not that all through this period of 
absence she was writing to me. She was a rare soul, Darley, one 
of the rare flowers of Alexandria. She wrote: 'I know I am 
dying, my dear Balthazar, but all too slowly. Do not believe the 
doctors and their diagnoses, you of all men. I am dying of 
heartsickness like a true Alexandrian.' " Balthazar blew his 
nose in an old sock which he took from the breast-pocket of his 
coat; carefully folded it to resemble a clean handkerchief and 
pedantically replaced iu "Yes" he said again, gravely, "what 
a word it is — 'heartsickness'! And it seems to me that while 
(from what you tell me) Liza Pursewarden was administering 
her death-warrant to her brother, Mountolive was giving the 
same back-hander to Leila. So we pass the loving-cup about, 
the poisoned loving-cup!" He nodded and took a loud sip of 
his drink. He went on slowly, with immense care and effort, 
like someone translating from an obscure and recondite text. 
"Yes, just as Liza's letter to Pursewarden telling him that at 
last the stranger had appeared was his coup de grace so to speak, 
so Leila received, I suppose, exactly the same letter. Who knows 
how these things are arranged? Perhaps in the very same words. 
The same words of passionate gratitude: 'I bless you, I thank 
you with all my heart that through you I am at last able to 
receive the precious gift which can never come to those who are 
ignorant of its powers.' Those are the words of Mountolive. 
For Leila quoted them to me. All this was after she went away. 
She wrote to me. It was as if she were cut off from Nessim and 
had nobody to turn to, nobody to talk to. Hence the long letters 
in which she went over it all, backwards and forwards, with 
that marvellous candour and clear-sightedness which I so loved 
in her. She refused every self-deception. Ah! but she fell be- 
tween two stools, Leila, between two lives, two loves. She said 

266 



something like this in explaining it to me: 'I thought at first 
when I got his letter that it was just another attachment — as it 
was in the past for his Russian ballerina. There was never any 
secret between us of his loves, and that is what made ours seem 
so truthful, so immortal in its way. It was a love without 
reserves. But this time everything became clear to me when he 
refused to tell me her name, to share her with me, so to speak! 
I knew then that everything was ended. Of course in another 
corner of my mind I had always been waiting for this moment; 
I pictured myself facing it with magnanimity. This I found, to 
my surprise, was impossible. That was why for a long time, 
even when I knew he was in Egypt, and anxious to see me, I 
could not bring myself to see him. Of course I pretended it was 
for other reasons, purely feminine ones. But it was not that. It 
wasn't lack of courage because of my smashed beauty, no! For 
I have in reality the heart of a man/ " 

Balthazar sat for a moment staring at the empty glasses with 
wide eyes, pressing his fingers softly together. His story meant 
very little to me — except that I was amazed to imagine Mount- 
olive capable of any very deep feeling, and at a loss to imagine 
this secret relationship with the mother of Nessim. 

"The Dark Swallow!' ' said Balthazar and clapped his hands 
for more drink to be brought. "We shall not look upon her like 
again." 

But gradually the raucous night around us was swelling with 
the deeper rumour of the approaching procession. One saw the 
rosy light of the cressets among the roofs. The streets, already 
congested, were now black with people. They buzzed like a 
great hive with the contagion of the knowledge. You could hear 
the distant bumping of drums and the hissing splash of cym- 
bals, keeping time with the strange archaic peristaltic rhythms 
of the dance — its relatively slow walking pace broken by queer 
halts, to enable the dancers, as the ecstasy seized them, to 
twirl in and out of their syncopated measures and return once 
more to their places in the line of march. It pushed its way 

267 



through the narrow funnel of the main street like a torrent 
whose force makes it overleap its bed; for all the little side 
streets were full of sightseers running along, keeping pace 
with it. 

First came the grotesque acrobats and tumblers with masks 
and painted faces, rolling and contorting, leaping in the air and 
walking on their hands. They were followed by a line of carts 
full of candidates for circumcision dressed in brilliant silks and 
embroidered caps, and surrounded by their sponsors, the ladies 
of the harem. They rode proudly, singing in juvenile voices and 
greeting the crowd: like the bleating of sacrificial lambs. Bal- 
thazar croaked: "Foreskins will fall like snow tonight, by the 
look of it. It is amazing that there are no infections. You know, 
they use black gunpowder and lime-juice as a styptic for the 
wound!' ' 

Now came the various orders with their tilting and careening 
gonfalons with the names of the holy ones crudely written on 
them. They trembled like foliage in the wind. Magnificently 
robed sheiks held them aloft walking with difficulty because of 
their weight, yet keeping the line of the procession straight. 
The street-preachers were gabbling the hundred holy names. A 
cluster of bright braziers outlined the stern bearded faces of a 
cluster of dignitaries carrying huge paper lanterns, like bal- 
loons, ahead of them. Now as they overran us and flowed down 
the length of Tatwig Street in a long ripple of colour we saw 
the various orders of Dervishes climb out of the nether darkness 
and emerge into the light, each order distinguished by its 
colour. They were led by the black-capped Rifaia — the scor- 
pion-eaters of legendary powers. Their short barking cries in- 
dicated that the religious ecstasy was already on them. They 
gazed around with dazed eyes. Some had run skewers through 
their cheeks, others licked red-hot knives. At last came the 
courtly figure of Abu Zeid with his little group of retainers on 
magnificently caparisoned ponies, their cloaks swelling out 
behind them, their arms raised in salutation like knights em- 

268 



barking on a tournament. Before them ran a helter skelter 
collection of male prostitutes with powdered faces and long 
flowing hair, chuckling and ejaculating like chickens in a farm- 
yard. And to all this queer discontinuous and yet somehow 
congruent mass of humanity the music lent a sort of homo- 
geneity; it bound it and confined it within the heart-beats of 
the drums, the piercing skirl of the flutes, the gnashing of the 
cymbals. Circling, proceeding, halting: circling, proceeding, 
halting, the long dancing lines moved on towards the tomb, 
bursting through the great portals of Scobie's lodgings like a 
tide at full, and deploying across the brilliant square in clouds 
of dust. 

And as the chanters moved forward to recite the holy texts 
six Mevlevi dervishes suddenly took the centre of the stage, 
expanding in a slow fan of movement until they had formed a 
semicircle. They wore brilliant white robes reaching to their 
green slippered feet and tall brown hats shaped like huge 
bombes glacees. Calmly, beautifully, they began to whirl, these 
''tops spun by God", while the music of the flutes haunted 
them with their piercing quibbles. As they gathered momen- 
tum their arms, which at first they hugged fast to their 
shoulders, unfolded as if by centrifugal force and stretched out 
to full reach, the right palm turned upward to heaven, the left 
downward to the ground. So, with heads and tall rounded hats 
tilted slightly, like the axis of the earth, they stayed there 
miraculously spinning, their feet hardly seeming to touch the 
floor, in this wonderful parody of the heavenly bodies in their 
perpetual motion. On and on they went, faster and faster, 
until the mind wearied of trying to keep pace with them. I 
thought of the verses of Jalaluddin which Pursewarden used 
sometimes to recite. On the outer circles the Rifaia had begun 
their display of self-mutilation, so horrible to behold and yet 
so apparently harmless. The touch of a sheikh finger would 
heal all these wounds pierced in the cheeks and breasts. Here a 
dervish drove a skewer through his nostrils, there another fell 

269 



upon the point of a dirk, driving it up through his throat into 
his skull. But still the central knot of dancers continued its 
unswerving course, spinning in the sky of the mind. 

"My goodness* ' said Balthazar at my elbow, with a chuckle, 
"I thought he was familiar. There's the Magzub himself. The 
one at the further end. He used to be an absolute terror, more 
than half mad. The one who was supposed to have stolen the 
child and sold it to a brothel. Look at him." 

I saw a face of immense world-weary serenity, the eyes closed, 
the lips curved in a half-smile; as the dancer spun slowly to a 
halt this slender personage, with an air of half-playful modesty, 
took up a bundle of thorns and lighting it at a brazier thrust 
the blazing mass into his bosom against the flesh, and started to 
whirl once more like a tree in flames. Then as the circle came 
to a swaying halt he plucked it out once more and gave the 
dervish next to him a playful slap upon the face with it. 

But now a dozen dancing circles intervened and took up the 
measure and the little courtyard overflowed with twisting turn- 
ing figures. From the little shrine came the steady drone of the 
holy word, punctuated by the shrill tongue trills of the votaries. 

"Scobie's going to have a heavy night" said Balthazar with 
irreverence. " Counting foreskins up there in the Moslem 
heaven." 

Somewhere far away I heard the siren of a ship boom in the 
harbour, recalling me to my senses. It was time to be going. 
'Til come down with you" said Balthazar, and together we 
started to push and wriggle our way down the crowded street 
towards the Corniche. 

We found a gharry and sat silent in it, hearing the music and 
drumming gradually receding as we traversed the long rolling 
line of the marine parade. The moon was up, shining on the 
calm sea, freckled by the light breeze. The palms nodded. We 
clip-clopped down the narrow twisted streets and into the 
commercial harbour at last with its silent ghostly watercraft. 
A few lights winked here and there. A liner moved out of its 

270 



berth and slid softly down the channel — a long glittering 
crescent of light. 

The little launch which was to carry me was still being 
loaded with provisions and luggage. 

"Weir' I said, "Balthazar. Keep out of mischief.'' 

"We'll be meeting again quite soon" he said quietly. "You 
can't shake me off. The Wandering Jew, you know. But I'll 
keep you posted about Clea. I'd say something like 'Come back 
to us soon', if I didn't have the feeling that you weren't going 
to. I'm damned if I know why. But that we'll meet again I'm 
sure." 

"So am I" I said. 

We embraced warmly, and with an abrupt gesture he climbed 
back into the gharry and settled himself once more. 

"Mark my words" he said as the horse started up to the 
flick of a whip. 

I stood, listening to the noise of its hooves until the night 
swallowed them up. Then I turned back to the work in hand. 



271 



IV 



Dearest Clea: 
Three long months and no word from you* I 
would have been very much disquieted had not the 
faithful Balthazar sent me his punctual postcard 
every few days to report so favourably on your progress: though 
of course he gives me no details. You for your part must have 
grown increasingly angry at my callous silence which you so 
little deserve. Truthfully, I am bitterly ashamed of it. I do not 
know what curious inhibition has been holding me back. I have 
been unable either to analyse it or to react against it effectively. 
It has been like a handle of a door which won't turn. Why? It is 
doubly strange because I have been deeply conscious of you all 
the time, of you being actively present in my thoughts. I've 
been holding you, metaphorically, cool against my throbbing 
mind like a knife-blade. Is it possible that I enjoyed you better 
as a thought than as a person alive, acting in the world? Or was 
it that words themselves seemed so empty a consolation for the 
distance which has divided us? I do not know. But now that the 
job is nearly completed I seem suddenly to have found my 
tongue. 

Things alter their focus on this little island. You called it a 
metaphor once, I remember, but it is very much a reality to me 
— though of course vastly changed from the little haven I knew 
before. It is our own invasion which has changed it. You could 
hardly imagine that ten technicians could make such a change. 
But we have imported money, and with it are slowly altering 
the economy of the place, displacing labour at inflated prices, 
creating all sorts of new needs of which the lucky inhabitants 
were not conscious before. Needs which in the last analysis will 
destroy the tightly woven fabric of this feudal village with its 

272 



tense blood-relationships, its feuds and archaic festivals. Its 
wholeness will dissolve under these alien pressures. It was so 
tightly woven, so beautiful and symmetrical like a swallow's 
nest. We are picking it apart like idle boys, unaware of the 
damage we inflict. It seems inescapable the death we bring to 
the old order without wishing it. It is simply done too — a few 
steel girders, some digging equipment, a crane! Suddenly things 
begin to alter shape. A new cupidity is born. It will start 
quietly with a few barbers' shops, but will end by altering the 
whole architecture of the port. In ten years it will be an un- 
recognisable jumble of warehouses, dance-halls and brothels for 
merchant sailors. Only give us enough time! 

The site which they chose for the relay station is on the 
mountainous eastward side of the island, and not where I lived 
before. I am rather glad of this in an obscure sort of way. I am 
sentimental enough about old memories to enjoy them — but 
how much better they seem in the light of a small shift of 
gravity; they are renewed and refreshed all at once. Moreover 
this corner of the island is unlike any other part — a high wine- 
bearing valley overlooking the sea. Its soils are gold, bronze and 
scarlet — I suppose they consist of some volcanic marl. The red 
wine they make is light and very faintly pltillant, as if a volcano 
still slumbered in every bottle. Yes, here the mountains ground 
their teeth together (one can hear them during the frequent 
tremors!) and powdered up these metamorphic rocks into chalk. 
I live in a small square house of two rooms built over a wine- 
magazine. A terraced and tiled courtyard separates it from 
several other such places of storage — deep cellars full of 
sleeping wine in tuns. 

We are in the heart of the vineyards; on all sides, ruled away 
on the oblong to follow the spine of the blue hill above the sea, 
run the shallow canals of humus and mould between the sym- 
metrical vines which are now flourishing. Galleries — no, 
bowling-alleys of the brown ashy earth, every mouthful finger- 
and-fist-sifted by the industrious girls. Here and there figs and 

273 



olives intrude upon this rippling forest of green, this vine- 
carpet. It is so dense that once you are in it, crouched, your 
field of visibility is about three feet, like a mouse in the corn. 
As I write there are a dozen invisible girls tunnelling like 
moles, turning the soil. I hear their voices but see nothing. 
Yes, they are crawling about in there like sharpshooters. They 
rise and start work before dawn. I wake and hear them arriving 
often, sometimes singing a snatch of a Greek folk-song! I am 
up at five. The first birds come over and are greeted by the small 
reception committee of optimistic hunters who pot idly at 
them and then pass up the hill, chattering and chaffing each 
other. 

Shading my terrace stands a tall tree of white mulberries, 
with the largest fruit I have ever seen — as big as caterpillars. 
The fruit is ripe and the wasps have found it and are quite 
drunk on the sweetness. They behave just like human beings, 
laughing uproariously about nothing, falling down, picking 
fights. . . . 

The life is hard, but good. What pleasure to actually sweat 
over a task, actually use one's hands! And while we are harvest- 
ing steel to raise, membrane by membrane, this delicate mys- 
terious ex-voto to the sky — why the vines are ripening too with 
their reminder that long after man has stopped his neurotic 
fiddling with the death-bringing tools with which he expresses 
his fear of life, the old dark gods are there, underground, buried 
in the moist humus of the chthonian world (that favourite word 
of P's). They are forever sited in the human wish. They will 
never capitulate! (I am talking at random simply to give you an 
idea of the sort of life I lead here.) 

The early hill-barley is being gathered. You meet walking 
haystacks — haystacks with nothing but a pair of feet below 
them trudging along these rocky lanes. The weird shouts the 
women give, either at cattle or calling to one another from hill- 
side to hillside. "Wow" "hoosh" "gnaiow". This barley is laid 
upon the flat roofs for threshing out the chaff which they do 

274 



with sticks. Barley! hardly is the word spoken before the ant- 
processions begin, long chains of dark ants trying to carry it 
away to their private storehouses. This in turn has alerted the 
yellow lizards; they prowl about eating the ants, lying in am- 
bush winking their eyes. And, as if following out the octave of 
causality in nature, here come the cats to hunt and eat the 
lizards. This is not good for them, and many die of a wasting 
disease attributed to this folly. But I suppose the thrill of the 
chase is on them. And then? Well, now and then a viper kills a 
cat stone dead. And the man with his spade breaks the snake's 
back. And the man? Autumn fevers come on with the first rain. 
The old men tumble into the grave like fruit off a tree. Unit a 
la guerra! These people were occupied by Italians and quite a 
few learned the language which they speak with a Sienese 
accent. 

In the little square is a fountain where the women gather. 
They proudly display their babies, and fancy them as if they 
were up for sale. This one is fat, that one thin. The young men 
pass up and down the road with hot shy glances. One of them 
sings archly "Solo, per te, Lucia \ But they only toss their heads 
and continue with their gossip. There is an old and apparently 
completely deaf man filling his pitcher. He is almost electro- 
cuted by the phrase ' 'Dmitri at the big house is dead." It lifts 
him off the ground. He spins round in a towering rage. "Dead? 
Who's dead? Eh? What?" His hearing is much improved all at 
once. 

There is a little acropolis now called Fontana, high up there 
in the clouds. Yet it isn't far. But a steep climb up clinker-dry 
river-beds amid clouds of black flies; you come upon herds of 
rushing black goats like satans. There is a tiny hospice on the 
top with one mad monk; built as if on a turntable like a kiln of 
rusk. From here you can drink the sweet indolent misty curves 
of the island to the west. 

And the future? 

Well, this is a sketch of a nearly ideal present which will not 

275 



last forever; indeed has almost expired, for within another 
month or so my usefulness will come to an end, and with it 
presumably the post upon which I depend for my exiguous 
livelihood. 1 have no resources of my own and must consider 
ways and means. No, the future rolls about inside me with 
every roll of the ship, so to speak, like a cargo which has 
worked loose. Were it not to see you again I doubt if I could 
return again to Alexandria. I feel it fade inside me, in my 
thoughts, like some valedictory mirage — like the sad history of 
some great queen whose fortunes have foundered among the 
ruins of armies and the sands of time! My mind has been turn- 
ing more and more westward, towards the old inheritance of 
Italy or France. Surely there is still some worthwhile work to 
be done among their ruins — something which we can cherish, 
perhaps even revive? I ask myself this question, but it really 
addresses itself to you. Uncommitted as yet to any path, never- 
theless the one I would most like to take leads westward and 
northward. There are other reasons. The terms of my contract 
entitle me to free "repatriation" as they call it; to reach Eng- 
land would cost me nothing. Then, with the handsome service 
gratuity which all this bondage has earned me, I think I could 
afford a spell in Europe. My heart leaps at the thought. 

But something in all this must be decided for me; I have a 
feeling, I mean, that it is not I who shall decide* 

Please forgive me my silence for which I cannot offer any 
excuse and write me a line. 

Last Saturday I found myself with a free day and a half, so I 
walked across the island with a pack to spend a night in the 
little house where I lived on my previous visit. What a con- 
trast to this verdant highland it was to strike that wild and 
windy promontory once more, the acid green seas and fretted 
coastlines of the past. It was indeed another island — I suppose 
the past always is. Here for a night and a day I lived the life of 
an echo, thinking much about the past and about us all moving 
in it, the "selective fictions' ' which life shufHes out like a pack 

276 



of cards, mixing and dividing, withdrawing and restoring. It 
did not seem to me that I had the right to feel so calm and 
happy: a sense of Plenitude in which the only unanswered 
question was the one which arose with each memory of your 
name. 

Yes, a different island, harsher and more beautiful of aspect. 
One held the night-silence in one's hands; feeling it slowly 
melting — as a child holds a piece of icel At noon a dolphin 
rising from the ocean. Earthquake vapours on the sea-line. The 
great grove of plane trees with their black elephant hides which 
the wind strips off in great scrolls revealing the soft grey ashen 
skin within. . . . Much of the detail I had forgotten. 

It is rather off the beaten track this little promontory; only 
olive-pickers might come here in season. Otherwise the only 
visitants are the charcoal burners who ride through the grove 
before light every day with a characteristic jingle of stirrups. 
They have built long narrow trenches on the hill. They crouch 
over them all day, black as demons. 

But for the most part one might be living on the moon. 
Slightly noise of sea, the patient stridulation of cigales in the 
sunlight. One day I caught a tortoise at my front door; on the 
beach was a smashed turtle's egg. Small items which plant 
themselves in the speculative mind like single notes of music 
belonging to some larger composition which I suppose one will 
never hear. The tortoise makes a charming and undemanding 
pet. I can hear P say: "Brother Ass and his tortoise. The 
marriage of true minds!" 

For the rest: the picture of a man skimming flat stones upon 
the still water of the lagoon at evening, waiting for a letter out 
of silence. 

o o o o o 

But I had hardly confided this letter to the muleteer-postman 
who took our mail down to the town before I received a letter 
with an Egyptian stamp, addressed to me in an unknown hand. 
It read as follows: 

277 



"You did not recognise it, did you? I mean the handwriting 
on the envelope? I confess that I chuckled as I addressed it to 
you, before beginning this letter: I could see your face all of a 
sudden with its expression of perplexity. I saw you turn the 
letter over in your fingers for a moment trying to guess who had 
sent it! 

"It is the first serious letter I have attempted, apart from 
short notes, with my new hand: this strange accessory-after-the- 
fact with which the good Amaril has equipped me! I wanted it 
to become word-perfect before I wrote to you. Of course I was 
frightened and disgusted by it at first, as you can imagine. But 
I have come to respect it very much, this delicate and beautiful 
steel contrivance which lies beside me so quietly on the table in 
its green velvet glove! Nothing falls out as one imagines it. I 
could not have believed myself accepting it so completely — 
steel and rubber seem such strange allies for human flesh. But 
the hand has proved itself almost more competent even than an 
ordinary flesh-and-blood member! In fact its powers are so 
comprehensive that I am a little frightened of it. It can under- 
take the most delicate of tasks, even turning the pages of a 
book, as well as the coarser ones. But most important of all — - 
ah! Darley I tremble as I write the words — IT can paintl 

"I have crossed the border and entered into the possession of 
my kingdom, thanks to the Hand. Nothing about this was 
premeditated. One day it took up a brush and lo! pictures of 
truly troubling originality and authority were born. I have five 
of them now. I stare at them with reverent wonder. Where did 
they come from? But I know that the Hand was responsible. 
And this new handwriting is also one of its new inventions, 
tall and purposeful and tender. Don't think I boast. I am 
speaking with the utmost objectivity, for I know that I am not 
responsible. It is the Hand alone which has contrived to slip 
me through the barriers into the company of the Real Ones as 
Pursewarden used to say. Yet it is a bit frightening; the elegant 
velvet glove guards its secret perfectly. If I wear both gloves a 

278 



perfect anonymity is preserved! I watch with wonder and a 
certain distrust, as one might a beautiful and dangerous pet like 
a panther, say. There is nothing, it seems, that it cannot do 
impressively better than I can. This will explain my silence and 
I hope excuse it. I have been totally absorbed in this new hand- 
language and the interior metamorphosis it has brought about. 
All the roads have opened before me, everything seems now 
possible for the first time. 

"On the table beside me as I write lies my steamship ticket 
to France; yesterday I knew with absolute certainty that I must 
go there. Do you remember how Pursewarden used to say that 
artists, like sick cats, knew by instinct exactly which herb they 
needed to effect a cure: and that the bitter-sweet herb of their 
self-discovery only grew in one place, France? Within ten days 
I shall be gone! And among so many new certainties there is one 
which has raised its head — the certainty that you will follow 
me there in your own good time. I speak of certainty not 
prophecy — I have done with fortune-tellers once and for all! 

"This, then, is simply to give you the dispositions which the 
Hand has imposed on me, and which I accept with eagerness 
and gratitude — with resignation also. This last week I have 
been paying a round of goodbye visits, for I think it will be 
some long time before I see Alexandria again. It has become 
stale and profitless to me. And yet how can we but help love the 
places which have made us suffer? Leave-takings are in the air; 
it's as if the whole composition of our lives were being suddenly 
drawn away by a new current. For I am not the only person who 
is leaving the place — far from it. Mountolive, for example, will 
be leaving in a couple of months; by a great stroke of luck he 
has been given the plum post of his profession, Paris! With 
this news all the old uncertainties seem to have vanished; last 
week he was secretly married! You will guess to whom. 

"Another deeply encouraging thing is the return and recovery 
of dear old Pombal. He is back at the Foreign Office now in a 
senior post and seems to have recovered much of his old form 

279 



to judge by the long exuberant letter he sent me. 'How could 
I have forgotten' he writes 'that there are no women in the 
world except French women? It is quite mysterious. They are 
the most lovely creation of the Almighty. And yet . . . dear 
Clea, there are so very many of them i and each more perfect than 
the other. What is one poor man to do against so many, against 
such an army? For Godsake ask someone, anyone, to bring up 
reinforcements. Wouldn't Darley like to help an old friend out 
for old times' sake?' 

"I pass you the invitation for what it is worth. Amaril and 
Semira will have a child this month — a child with the nose I 
invented! He will spend a year in America on some job or 
other, taking them with him. Balthazar also is off on a visit to 
Smyrna and Venice. My most piquant piece of news, however, 
I have saved for the last. Justine! 

''This I do not expect you to believe. Nevertheless I must 
put it down. Walking down Rue Fuad at ten o'clock on a 
bright Spring morning I saw her come towards me, radiant and 
beautifully turned out in a spring frock of eloquent design: and 
flop flop flop beside her on the dusty pavements, hopping like a 
toad, the detested Memlik! Clad in elastic-sided boots with 
spats. A cane with a gold knob. And a newly minted flower-pot 
on his fuzzy crown. I nearly collapsed. She was leading him 
along like a poodle. One almost saw the cheap leather leash 
attached to his collar. She greeted me with effusive warmth and 
introduced me to her captive who shuffled shyly and greeted 
me in a deep groaning voice like a bass saxophone. They were 
on their way to meet Nessim at the Select. Would I go too? Of 
course I would. You know how tirelessly curious I am. She 
kept shooting secret sparks of amusement at me without Mem- 
lik seeing. Her eyes were sparkling with delight, a sort of 
impish mockery. It was as if, like some powerful engine of 
destruction, she had suddenly switched on again. She has never 
looked happier or younger. When we absented ourselves to 
powder our noses I could only gasp: 'Justine! Memlik! What 

280 



on earth?' She gave a peal of laughter and giving me a great hug 
said: 'I have found his point faible. He is hungry for society. He 
wants to move in social circles in Alexandria and meet a lot of 
white women!' More laughter. 'But what is the object?' I said 
in bewilderment. Here all at once she became serious, though 
her eyes sparkled with clever malevolence. 'We have started 
something, Nessim and I. We have made a break through at 
last. Clea, I am so happy, I could cry. It is something much 
bigger this time, international. We will have to go to Switzer- 
land next year, probably for good. Nessim's luck has suddenly 
changed. I can't tell you any details.' 

"When we reached the table upstairs Nessim had already 
arrived and was talking to Memlik. His appearance staggered 
me, he looked so much younger, and so elegant and self- 
possessed. It gave me a queer pang, too, to see the passionate 
way they embraced, Nessim and Justine, as if oblivious to the 
rest of the world. Right there in the cafe\ with such ecstatic 
passion that I did not know where to look. 

"Memlik sat there with his expensive gloves on his knee, 
smiling gently. It was clear that he enjoyed the life of high 
society, and I could see from the way he offered me an ice that 
he also enjoyed the company of white women! 

"Ah! it is getting tired, this miraculous hand. I must catch 
the evening post with this letter. There are a hundred things to 
attend to before I start the bore of packing. As for you, wise 
one, I have a feeling that you too perhaps have stepped across 
the threshold into the kingdom of your imagination, to take 
possession of it once and for all. Write and tell me — or save it 
for some small cafe* under a chestnut-tree, in smoky autumn 
weather, by the Seine. 

"I wait, quite serene and happy, a real human being, an 
artist at last. 

Clea. 



281 



But it was to be a little while yet before the clouds parted 
before me to reveal the secret landscape of which she was 
writing, and which she would henceforward appropriate, brush- 
stroke by slow brushstroke. It had been so long in forming 
inside me, this precious image, that I too was as unprepared as 
she had been. It came on a blue day, quite unpremeditated, 
quite unannounced, and with such ease I would not have be- 
lieved it. I had been until then like some timid girl, scared of 
the birth of her first child. 

Yes, one day I found myself writing down with trembling 
fingers the four words (four letters! four faces!) with which 
every story-teller since the world began has staked his slender 
claim to the attention of his fellow-men. Words which presage 
simply the old story of an artist coming of age. I wrote: "Once 
upon a time 

And I felt as if the whole universe had given me a nudge! 



282 



WORKPOINTS 

Hamid's story of Darley and Melissa. 



Mountolive's child by the dancer Griskin. The result of the 
duel. The Russian letters. Her terror of Liza when after her 
mother's death she is sent to her father. 



Memlik and Justine in Geneva. 



Balthazar's encounter with Arnauti in Venice. The violet sun- 
glasses, the torn overcoat, pockets full of crumbs to feed the 
pigeons. The scene in Florian's. The shuffling walk of general 
paralysis. Conversations on the balcony of the little pension over 
the rotting backwater of the canal. Was Justine actually 
Claudia? He cannot be sure. "Time is memory, they say; the 
art however is to revive it and yet avoid remembering. You 
speak of Alexandria. I can no longer even imagine it. It has 
dissolved. A work of art is something which is more like life 
than life itself!" The slow death. 



The northern journey of Narouz, and the great battle of the 
sticks. 
Smyrna. The manuscripts, The Annals of Time. The theft. 



283 



NOTES 

* Page 140 

CHE FECE . . . IL GRAN RIFIUTO 

To some among us comes that implacable day 
Demanding that we stand our ground and utter 
By choice of will the great Yea or Nay. 
And whosoever has in him the affirming word 
Will straightway then be heard. 
The pathways of his life will clear at once 
And all rewards will crown his way. 
But he, the other who denies, 
No-one can say he lies; he would repeat 
His Nay in louder tones if pressed again. 
It is his right — yet by such little trifles, 
A 'No' instead of 'Yes' his whole life sinks and stifles, 
free translation from C. P. Cavafy 

* Page 40 

FAR AWAY 

This fugitive memory ... I should so much 
Like to record it, but it's dwindled . . . 
Hardly a print of it remaining . . . 
It lies so far back, back in my earliest youth, 
Before my gifts had kindled. 

A skin made of jasmine-petals on a night . . . 
An August evening . . . but was it August? 
I can barely reach it now, barely remember . . . 
Those eyes, the magnificent eyes . . . 
Or was it perhaps in September ... in the dog days . . . 

285 



* 



Irrevocably blue, yes, bluer than 
A sapphire's mineral gaze. 

free translation from C. P. Cavafy 



Page 39 

THE AFTERNOON SUN 

This little room, how well I know it! 

Now they've rented this and the next door one 

As business premises, the whole house 

Has been swallowed up by merchants' offices, 

By limited companies and shipping agents . . . 

O how familiar it is, this little room! 

Once here, by the door, stood a sofa, 

And before it a little Turkish carpet, 

Exactly here. Then the shelf with the two 

Yellow vases, and on the right of them: 

No. Wait. Opposite them (how time passes) 

The shabby wardrobe and the little mirror. 

And here in the middle the table 

Where he always used to sit and write, 

And round it the three cane chairs. 

How many years . . . And by the window over there 

The bed we made love on so very often. 

Somewhere all these old sticks of furniture 
Must still be knocking about . . . 

And beside the window, yes, that bed. 
The afternoon sun climbed half way up it. 



286 



We parted at four o'clock one afternoon, 
Just for a week, on just such an afternoon. 
I would have never 
Believed those seven days could last forever. 

free translation from C. P. Cavafy 

* Page 204 

The incidents recorded in Capodistria's letter have been 
borrowed and expanded from a footnote in Franz Hart- 
mann's Life of Paracelsus. 



/ 



287 



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